animal rights activists
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The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has had a chilling effect on activists scared to participate in what should be constitutionally protected activity.

Five longtime activists are challenging a federal law that defines a wide spectrum of peaceful - and in some cases, otherwise lawful - animal rights activism as acts of terrorism. They say that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) violates their First Amendment right to free speech and has had a chilling effect on activists who are refraining from participating in what should be constitutionally protected activity out of fear of being labeled a terrorist.

They have good reason to worry. In 2009, the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested and indicted four California protesters for terrorism, each of whom faced 10 years in prison. Their crimes? They "marched, chanted, and chalked" sidewalk slogans outside the homes of animal researchers and distributed fliers about their campaign.

In 2010, federal judge Ronald M. Whyte dismissed the indictments, agreeing with the defense that the charges were too vague because the "behavior in question spans a wide spectrum from criminal conduct to constitutionally protected political protest." Nevertheless, AETA continues to pose a threat to those participating in animal rights advocacy.

AETA, a 2006 upgrade to the weaker Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) of 1992, was a bipartisan effort cosponsored by Senators James Inhofe. R-Okla., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to, in the words of Inhofe, "combat radical animal rights extremists who commit violent acts against innocent people because they work with animals."

But the vague language in AETA categorizes as terrorism any activity carried out "for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise," or which causes "the loss of any real or personal property," including "economic damage" such as a loss of profits. This may apply to peaceful acts committed against "a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise" -- essentially criminalizing boycotts of people or institutions invested in an animal enterprise.

AETA defines an "animal enterprise" as any institution "that uses or sells animals or animal products for profit, food or fiber production, agriculture, education, research, or testing." So vague and broad is this definition that it could apply to businesses ranging from megacorporations like Wal-Mart, big agribusiness or even your local turkey-serving school cafeteria.

Stifling Dissent

According to Coalition to Abolish the AETA, corporate front-groups like the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition (AEPC), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) lobbied heavily for the act's passage. It's no accident that the chilling effect of AETA on the free speech of animal rights activists helps biomedical and agribusiness companies avoid exposure.

The federal lawsuit against AETA, filed last month by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the five activists, seeks an injunction against AETA on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment and discriminates against a particular ideology by singling out animal rights activists. (Restrictions on free speech rights must be "content neutral.")

According to the complaint, AETA has led "many advocates to censor themselves and refrain from protected speech" such as "attending public protests, or investigating and publicizing conditions and mistreatment of animals on factory farms - all of which are protected activity under the First Amendment - in order to educate fellow citizens about the harms and abuses associated with large-scale factory farming."

Lead plaintiff Sarahjane Blum is a 23-year veteran of animal rights activism and cofounder of Gourmet Cruelty, an organization that helped expose the appalling conditions of ducks and geese in the foie gras industry, which force-feeds birds until they are too heavy to walk or even stand. Thanks to Blum's work documenting foie gras farms, California passed a law in 2004 that banned foie gras in the state (it goes into effect this year). Had her efforts taken place after the passage of AETA, she might have faced terrorism charges for costing the foie gras industry profits. In the past, Blum "had knowingly and openly violated the law many times through acts of non-violent civil disobedience," but has since been "unwilling to face the possibility of prosecution and sentencing as a terrorist," according to the lawsuit.

"I spent years uncovering conditions on foie gras farms and educating the public about the way ducks and geese are abused," Blum told CCR. "I no longer feel free to speak my mind on these issues out of fear that my advocacy could actually convince people to stop eating foie gras - affecting those businesses' bottom line and turning me into an animal enterprise terrorist."

Blum isn't alone. Ryan Shapiro, another plaintiff who co-founded Gourmet Cruelty with Blum, wishes to use his film degree to further document and reveal abhorrent factory farm practices. Yet Shapiro has refrained from doing so because he feels paralyzed by the prospect that it could land him behind bars as a terrorist under AETA.

Another plaintiff, Lauren Gazzola, was convicted in 2006 under AETA's less punitive 1992 predecessor. Gazzola was found guilty on six felony counts and spent nearly four years in federal prison for her involvement in the animal rights movement, as detailed by CCR:
Lauren's arrest and prosecution arose from her leadership role in Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a grassroots campaign devoted to exposing and ending horrific animal abuse at Huntington Life Sciences, a corporation made infamous after undercover investigators disclosed footage of researchers dissecting a conscious monkey, repeatedly punching beagle puppies in the face, and other abuse. Lauren and the other SHAC defendants were not prosecuted for personally damaging Huntington property but, rather, for running a website that reported on and endorsed legal and illegal protests that caused the company to lose money.
Like her fellow plaintiffs, Gazzola wants to reenter the world of animal rights advocacy, but due to the vague AETA language she is uncertain what constitutes free speech.

Beyond Animal Rights: Why Everyone Should Care About AETA

Independent journalist Will Potter suggests that the consequences of this case could reach far beyond the realm of animal rights, leaving no social justice movement untouched. On his Web site Green Is the New Red, he writes, "It sets a dangerous precedent for labeling anyone who effectively threatens corporate profits a 'terrorist.'" Potter has spent years reporting extensively on what he calls "a coordinated campaign to target animal rights activists who...cause 'economic loss' to corporations." In a recent blog post, he lists a handful of the latest examples:
  • An "Ag Gag" bill has been introduced in Florida to criminalize investigations [of factory farms by journalists and/or activists without prior authorization from the owner]. Its lead sponsor calls these investigations "terrorism." Four similar attempts failed in other states this year.
  • These state bills are similar to model "eco-terrorism" legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate front group.
  • A recent EUROPOL report on international terrorism includes a section on undercover investigations by animal rights and environmental activists.
  • 12 Spanish activists have been charged with terrorism for their investigations.
  • Two activists in Finland faced similar charges.
CCR recognizes these dangers as well, acknowledging in a press release that "AETA is written so expansively it could turn a successful labor protest at Wal-Mart into an act of domestic terrorism. Nonviolent violators face up to 20 years in prison, depending on the amount of profit loss that results."

When Upton Sinclair published his scathing condemnation of the unsanitary and atrocious labor practices of the meatpacking industry in 1906, the purchase of American meat both nationally and internationally took a 50 percent nosedive. Meanwhile, in less than a year, the public outcry garnered by Sinclair's invaluable investigative work led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act of, which provided the base structure of the Food and Drug Administration. However, if Sinclair had published The Jungle today, he might just be facing prosecution for terrorism.