The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has had a chilling effect on
activists scared to participate in what should be constitutionally protected
January 4, 2012
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.
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.
Coalition to Abolish the AETA,
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.
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
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
"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
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
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:
"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
These state bills are similar to model "eco-terrorism" legislation
drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate front
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
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
Rania Khalek is an associate writer for AlterNet. Follow her on