The federal government asked U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro to toss a lawsuit filed by five animal advocates last year that claimed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) is unconstitutional.
AETA was lobbied for by a number of agribusinesses, the fur industry and pharmaceutical companies that have a financial stake in the continued exploitation of animals and was passed under Bush in 2006 and was intended to target violent activities, such as attempted bombings at UCLA’s primate research center.
However, the lawsuit, Blum v. Holder, argues that the law goes too far and the overly broad way it’s written could technically cover many legal activities from leafletting to whistle-blowing. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the group, “the language of the AETA covers many First Amendment activities, such as picketing, boycotts and undercover investigations if they ‘interfere’ with an animal enterprise by causing a loss of profits. So in effect, the AETA silences the peaceful and lawful protest activities of animal and environmental advocates.”
An attorney for the Justice Department argued that the law isn’t directed at constitutionally protected activities, such as holding peaceful protests, reports Businessweek, but the activists disagree and believe it has had a more chilling effect than was intended and has left them afraid to speak out for fear of being prosecuted as terrorists.
“The fear of prosecution is not hypothetical and the chill is not hypothetical,” said Alex Reinert, a lawyer for the group.
The law hasn’t been used much, but it has been used. The SHAC7, a group of six activists, were convicted of multiple federal felonies under the former Federal Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 for campaigning to shut down the notorious animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. They didn’t break anything, steal anything or hurt anyone.
Their crime? Making a website and disseminating information about documented cruelty that was being hidden behind closed doors and highlighting both legal and illegal activities to help shut it down. They all received jail time.
In 2009, two activists received jail time for releasing hundreds of animals from a mink farm.
“The law criminalizes causing damage or loss to the real or personal property of an animal enterprise,” Rachel Meerpol, a staff attorney at the center told the LATimes. “Because those terms aren’t defined, you have to take them at their common usage. And under common usage, ‘personal property’ includes money, includes profits. So that means that the acts can fairly be read to criminalize anyone who causes a business to lose profits. Activists from any social movements could be subject to prosecution as terrorists if their advocacy, if their lawful protest, affects the bottom line of a business.”
As pointed out by those in opposition to this law, and in the cases of Ag Gag legislation, there are already laws on the books to protect businesses and individuals from trespassing and damage.
“I spent years uncovering conditions on foie gras farms and educating the public about the way ducks and geese are abused,” said Sarahjane Blum, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “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.”
These businesses seem less concerned with keeping their properties and employees safe than they do with keeping what they do out of the public eye. Undercover investigations that are brought to light by organizations such as Mercy for Animals and a few of the plaintiffs have a more far-reaching effect than any property damage ever could and will hopefully change the hearts and minds of the public.
Leaving this law in place and allowing businesses to hide their actions behind the war on terror sets a dangerous precedent for targeting any activist who wants to rock the boat and stifles the free-market of ideas…one of the very things the Constitution is intended to protect.
The judge still has to rule on the government’s motion to dismiss.
Photo credit: Nettverk for dyrs frihet (Net. for Animal Freedom)