Animal Protection > ALF Foes
The “Animal Enterprise Protection Act”: New, Improved, and ACLU Approved

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by Dr. Steven Best

Welcome to the post-constitutional America, where defense of animal rights and the Earth is a terrorist crime.

In 1992, a decade before the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act, animal exploitation groups such as the National Association for Biomedical Research successfully lobbied Congress to pass a federal law called the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA).   This legislation created the new crime of “animal enterprise terrorism,” and laid out hefty sentences and fines for any infringement. The law applies to anyone who “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any property” of an “animal enterprise” (research facilities, pet stores, breeders, zoos, rodeos, circuses, furriers, animal shelters, and the like), or anyone who causes an economic loss or damage of any kind to such establishments.

The AEPA defines an “animal rights or ecological terrorist organization” as “two or more persons organized for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any person from participating in any activity involving animals or an activity involving natural resources.” The act criminalizes actions that obstruct “any lawful activity involving the use of natural resources with an economic value.”

Like the amorphous category of “domestic terrorism,” a keystone in the USA PATRIOT Act attack on civil liberties, the frightening thing about the AEPA is its strategic vagueness that subsumes any and every form of protest and demonstration against exploitative industries to a criminal act – specifically, a terrorist act. Thus, the actions of two or more people can be labeled terrorists if they leaflet a circus, protest an experimental lab, block a road to protect a forest, do a tree-sit, or block the doors of a fur store. On the sweeping interpretations of “terrorism” in such legislation, Martin Luther King, Mahatmas Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez would today be vilified and imprisoned as terrorists, since the intent of their principled boycott campaigns was precisely to cause “economic damage” to unethical businesses. And since the AEPA, like the legal system in general, classifies animals as “property,” their “theft” (read: liberation) is unequivocally defined as a terrorist offense.

There already are laws against sabotage and property destruction, so isn’t the AEPA just a redundant piece of legislation? No – not when one understands its hidden agenda, which strikes at the heart of the Bill of Rights. The real purpose of the AEPA is to protect animal and earth exploitation industries from protest and criticism, not property destruction and “terrorism.” The AEPA redefines vandalism as ecoterrorism, petty lawbreakers as societal menaces, protestors and demonstrators as domestic terrorists, and threats to their blood money as threats to national security. Powerful economic and lobbying forces, animal exploitation industries seek immunity from criticism, to intimidate anyone contemplating protest against them and to dispatch their opponents to prison.

Free Speech on Trial: The SHAC 7

Hovering over activists’ heads for over a decade like the sword of Damocles, the AEPA dropped hard in March 2006, with the persecution and conviction of seven members of a direct action group dedicated to closing down the world’s most notorious animal-testing lab, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). Exercising their First Amendment right to free speech, activists from the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign ran a completely legal and highly effective campaign against HLS, driving them to the brink of bankruptcy. Alarmed by the new form of animal rights militancy, HLS and the biomedical research lobby commanded special sessions with Congress to ban SHAC campaigns. Using the AEPA, HLS successfully prosecuted the “SHAC 7,” who currently are serving prison sentences up to six years.

After the conviction of the SHAC 7, David Martosko, the noxious research director of the Center for Consumer Freedom and a fierce opponent of animal rights, declared: “This is just the starting gun." Indeed, in September 2006, the U.S. Senate passed a new version of the AEPA (S3990), significantly renamed the “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” (AETA). In November 2006, the House approved the bill (HR 4239), and President Bush obligingly signed it into law. Beyond the portentous change in name, the new and improved version of the AETA extends the range of legal prosecution of activists as well as stiffer penalties -- both fines and prison sentences -- for “terrorist” actions.

Created to stop the effectiveness of the SHAC-style tactics about which biomedical companies had habitually complained to Congress, the AETA now makes it a criminal offense to interfere not only with so-called “animal enterprises” directly, but also with organizations such as insurance companies, law firms, and investment houses that do business with them. This broadens the scope of legislation that is already overly broad. This problem is compounded further with additional vague concepts such as the criminalization of actions that create “reasonable fear” in the targets of protest, making actions such as peaceful home demonstrations likely candidates for accusations of “ecoterrorism.”

As the Equal Justice Alliance aptly summarizes the main problems with the AETA:

It is excessively broad and vague.

It imposes disproportionately harsh penalties.

It effectively brands animal advocates as “terrorists” and denies them equal protection.

It effectively brands civil disobedience as “terrorism” and imposes severe penalties.

It has a chilling effect on all forms of protest by endangering free speech and assembly.

It interferes with investigation of animal enterprises that violate federal laws.

It detracts from prosecution of real terrorism against the American people.

An Army of One

A sole voice of dissent in Congress, Representative Dennis Kucinich (D–Ohio) objected that the AETA bill compromises civil rights and threatens to "chill" free speech. Alone in examining the issue from the perspective of the victims rather than victimizers, albeit from a welfare rather than a rights standpoint, Kucinich said: "Just as we need to protect people’s right to conduct their work without fear of assault, so too this Congress has yet to address some fundamental ethical principles with respect to animals. How should animals be treated humanely? This is a debate that hasn't come here."

In response to Kucinich’s concerns, Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) stated that subsection (e) in the Senate bill, “rules of construction,” explicitly claims to protect legal protest actions, but Kucinich failed to counter that this minor clause conflicts with, and hardly counters, the overwhelming emphasis of the AETA, which is to criminalize any actions that cause “loss of profits” to a research lab, zoo, circus, breeder, or any other type of “animal enterprise.” Scrutinizing the semantic equivocations and logical inconsistencies of the bill, journalist Will Potter observes:

[S]ome lawmakers adamantly maintained that “damages” means physical damage to physical property, and not the “loss of profits,” as defined by “economic damage.” If that’s the case, why does the penalty section spell out sentences for “non-violent physical obstruction,” and for a crime that “does not instill in another the reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death” and “results in no economic damage or bodily injury”? If this bill only targets property destruction and violence, which by definition would have to cause economic damage or instill fear, how does the penalty section include sentences for crimes that do neither? … Lawmakers could spell out the definition of “damage,” and note that “economic damage” (including the loss of profits) only applies to the penalty section of the legislation. In other words, spell out that the offense must include physically damaging property, but penalties for that can take into account the amount of impact that property destruction had on a corporation’s “loss of profits.”

ACLU Betrayal

One of the most unfortunate aspects of the passing of this bill was the failure of the ACLU to challenge it. The ACLU did indeed write a letter to Congress about the passing of the AETA, to caution against conflating illegal and legal protest, but the organization failed to challenge the real terrorism perpetuated by animal and earth exploitation industries, and ultimately consented to their worldview and validity.

In an October 30, 2006 letter to Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee F. James Sensenbrenner and Ranking Member John Conyers, the ACLU writes that it “does not oppose this bill, but believes that these minor changes are necessary to make the bill less likely to chill or threaten freedom of speech.” Beyond proposed semantic clarifications, the ACLU mainly warns against broadening the law to include legal activities such as boycotts: “Legitimate expressive activity may result in economic damage…. Care must therefore be taken in penalizing economic damage to avoid infringing upon legitimate activity.”

Thus, unlike dozens of animal protection groups who adamantly reject the AETA en toto, the ACLU “does not oppose the bill.” In agreement with corporate interests, the ACLU assures the government it “does not condone violence or threats.” It thereby dodges the complex question of the legitimacy of sabotage against exploitative industries. The ACLU uncritically accepts: (1) the corporate-state definition of “violence” as intentional harm to property; (2) the legal definition of animals as “property”; and (3) the use of the “T-word” to demonize animal liberationists rather than animal exploiters. Ultimately, the ACLU sides with the government against activists involved in illegal forms of liberation or sabotage, a problematic alliance in times of global ecocide. The ACLU thereby defends the property rights of industries to torture and slaughter billions of animals over the moral rights of animals to bodily integrity and a life free from exploitation and gratuitous violence

The ACLU failed to ask the tough questions journalist Will Potter raised during his May 23, 2006 testimony before the House Committee that was holding a hearing on the AETA, and to follow Potter in identifying key inconsistencies in bill. Does the ACLU really think that their proposed modifications would be adequate to guarantee that the AETA doesn’t trample on legal rights to protest? Are they completely ignorant and indifferent to the fact that the AEPA was just used to send the SHAC 7 to jail for the crime of protesting fraudulent research and heinous killing of 5,000 animals a day? And just where was the ACLU during the SHAC 7 trial, one of the most significant First Amendment cases in recent history? Why does the ACLU only recognize violations of the Constitution against human rights advocates? Do they think that animal rights activists are not citizens with legal rights? Do they not recognize that tyrannical measures used against animal advocates today will be used against all citizens tomorrow?  How can the world’s premier civil rights institution is blatantly speciesist and bigoted toward animals? Why will they come to the defense of the Ku Klux Klan but not the SHAC 7?

Dispatches from a Police State

As a sign of things to come, in December 2006, a Portland, Oregon fur store owner urged the state to use the AETA against protestors of his store who “terrorized” him and affected his business. Corporate exploiters and Congress have taken this nation down a perilous slippery slope, where it becomes difficult to distinguish between illegal and legal forms of dissent, between civil disobedience and terrorism, between PETA and Al Qaeda, and between liberating chickens from a factory farm and flying passenger planes into skyscrapers. The state protects the corporate exploiters who pull their purse strings and stuff their pockets with favors and cash.

While animal rights activists are caught in the crosshairs of state repression, all forms of dissent have been targeted, and a broad pattern is emerging with undeniable boldness and clarity, alerting us to the systematic and full-scale assault the government has waged against the Bill of Rights. Recent documents obtained by NBC News, the ACLU, and other organizations show that the Defense Department, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, Department of Homeland Security and local police forces have unleashed a dragnet of surveillance on all manner of protest groups, from anti-war activists to vegetarians, from children to grandmothers. Whether in the streets, military recruiting centers, classrooms, or churches, the government has monitored dissenting individuals and groups. They follow peaceful citizens, write down their names and license plates, and enter their information into massive databases, all organized under the rubric of security threats and terrorists.

The bogus “war on terror” has served as a highly-effective propaganda and bullying device to ram through Congress and the courts a pro-corporate, anti-environmental authoritarian agenda. Using vague, catch-all phrases such as “enemy combatants” and “domestic terrorists,” the Bush administration has rounded up and tortured thousands of non-citizens (detaining them indefinitely in military tribunals without right to a fair trial) and surveilled, harassed, and imprisoned countless numbers of citizens who dare to challenge the government or corporate system it protects and represents.

The massive police resources of the US state are being used far more to thwart domestic dissent than to improve “homeland security.” While Big Brother is obsessed with the e-mail, conversations, and meetings of people who know a thing or two about the duties of citizenship, the airlines, railways, subways, city centers, and nuclear power plants remain completely vulnerable to attack.

Hour by hour, day by day, our First and Forth Amendment rights (among others) are hemorrhaging and bleeding away into the sinkhole of corporate-state tyranny. As I write, there are new reports that the Bush Administration has collected reams of information on every airline passenger, and assigned each one a secret security rating (which one can never know or protest), based on criteria such as the number of one-way trips one takes and preferred meal choices (aside from pretzels, if Muslim jihadists are vegetarians we could all be coded high-alert!). Parading the fascist elements of our society, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is on a campaign to persuade lawmakers that free speech rights must increasingly give way to security needs.

This issue goes beyond Republicans vs. Democrats, as the latter have hardly distinguished themselves on civil liberties since 9/11 and we can expect little improvement in the future, even if they control the executive and legislative branches of government (it is significant indeed to note that Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) co-sponsored the AETA). For what we have witnessed in the post-9/11 era is a sea-change in political thought, one that is rapidly constructing an authoritarian society where we are neither secure nor free. From coast to coast, citizens are resisting (such as efforts to declare the USA PATRIOT Act unconstitutional and to impeach Bush), but we are nowhere near a critical mass yet. As citizens, we need to counter the forces of darkness descending upon us and build a truly democratic culture.

Web Resources


Stop AETA:

Equal Justice Alliance:

ACLU FBI Spy Files:



Thomas Legislative Guide:


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