Nov. 13, 2006 – A new law moving through Congress threatens to classify non-violent civil disobedience carried out by animal-rights groups as terrorism.
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), already passed unanimously by the US Senate, expands on a previous law aimed at activists who protest the treatment of animals. It reclassifies common activist tactics as terrorism based solely on the cause pursued.
Proponents of the legislation, including co-sponsors Senator Dianne Feinstein (Dâ€“California) and Senator James Inhofe (Râ€“Oklahoma), say it will offer protection to scientists, medical researchers, ranchers, farmers and other industries using animals against "violent tactics" used by animal-rights "extremists."
While the bill makes specific provisions to safeguard First Amendment-protected activity, such as peaceful protests and lawful boycotts, animal-rights activists and civil-rights groups say the billâ€™s vague language could brand activists as terrorists for activities that are unlawful yet non-violent, such as blockades, property destruction, trespassing, and the freeing of captive animals.
The Senate passed the bill in September, less than a month after it was introduced. An even stricter version is under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee.
Current law allows the government to prosecute activists for intentionally damaging property used by "animal enterprises" â€“ businesses that use or sell animals. The AETA expands the bill to criminalize activists who also "interfere" with animal enterprises and businesses that work with them, taking into account resulting profit losses. It increases lengths of jail sentences and fines for activists convicted for breaking the law during their protests.
â€œWhat we're concerned about is an instance... where protesters conduct a sit-in that causes lost profits.... We don't want them prosecuted for â€˜terrorismâ€™ where the only damage is lost profits.â€
Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said activists could find themselves slapped with terrorism charges for committing non-violent crimes.
"The way the new bill is drafted is not particularly artful," Johnson told The NewStandard. "What we're concerned about is an instanceâ€¦ where protesters conduct a sit-in that causes lost profits. While they may be engaging in civil disobedience and have committed trespass, we don't want them prosecuted for â€˜terrorismâ€™ where the only damage is lost profits."
Additionally, the House version of the bill sweeps in "non-violent physical obstruction of an animal enterprise" as an offense if it causes a loss of profits.
Will Potter, a journalist who tracks how the so-called "war on terror" affects civil liberties, questions the motives behind the legislation.
"If this legislation is only going after so-called violent extremists, how can it spell out sentences for crimes that are, in the words of the legislation, â€˜non-violentâ€™?" Potter asked.
â€œIf this legislation is only going after so-called violent extremists, how can it spell out sentences for crimes that are, in the words of the legislation, â€˜non-violentâ€™?â€
Animal-rights and "animal liberation" activists typically protest the inhumane treatment of animals, including their use in food production, laboratory testing, clothing and entertainment. Some animal-rights activists feel so strongly about animal abuse, they choose to break the law to protest or prevent the practices. Civil disobedience tactics used by animal activists have included sit-ins and blockades, undercover abuse investigations, destruction of abusersâ€™ property or equipment, and the freeing of captive animals.
Under current law, activists can be penalized for causing an individual serious bodily harm or death. However, nearly all animal-liberation activists have foresworn violence and taken great care to avoid causing harm to people during their actions. The new bill criminalizes any act that creates a "reasonable fear" of bodily harm or death.
Potter said including such a provision is dangerous for activists because it is unclear what would constitute a "reasonable fear."
"One possible scenario is if you have a very raucous protest outside an executiveâ€™s home. And then you add on the fact that all of these industry groups have been using this â€˜eco-terroristâ€™ rhetoric," Potter said. "And if those individuals are protesting outside of the home and are wearing masks, then that can be seen as menacing. Soâ€¦ what is a reasonable fear in this climate of the war on terrorism and the â€˜eco-terrorismâ€™ rhetoric going on?"
If activists were successfully charged with intimidation for carrying out such protests, under the AETA they could be liable for any lost profits the company suffered as a result of the demonstration.
Nick Cooney, an animal-rights activist and director of the Philadelphia-based group Hugs for Puppies, said the word "terrorism" is "an extremely charged word" that would "influence how the public sees [the animal-rights debate], how politicians see the issue, how juries would see the issue."
â€œWe think that the AETA is really a test case that would not bode well in the future for other activists....â€
Critics of the bill worry that such labeling, coupled with the billâ€™s vague language, could inhibit both lawful and unlawful activities.
Johnson also said, "Any time you start talking about targeting a particular group, thereâ€™s a potential for chilling [of] speech."
Heidi Boghosian, director of the National Lawyerâ€™s Guild, said her organization opposes the bill, in part, because laws already exist to criminalize acts such as trespassing and property damage. Specifically targeting animal-rights activists with separate legislation and penalties, she said, "sets a dangerous precedent for going after people based on the content of their speech."
"We think that the AETA is really a test case that would not bode well in the future for other activists," Boghosian said, "because we think that they're going to target activists based on their specific views of animals and environment."
Potter called the AETA a "dream come true" for industries that abuse and kill animals.
As previously reported by TNS, corporations have long been pushing for stricter penalties for animal-liberation activists. In 2003, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative public-policy organization funded by more than 300 corporations, collaborated with the US Sportsmenâ€™s Alliance to write model legislation, called the "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act" to "fight domestic terror by animal and eco-extremist groups."
The model legislation created offenses for "depriving" or "obstructing" an animal enterprise from using animals, similar to the House version of the AETA.
Cooney said the AETA is nothing more than a bill to "shield [company] profits from attack."
Senators Feinstein and Inhofe acknowledged the financial motives behind the AETA in a press release. "Prohibiting the animal-rights extremistsâ€™ violent tactics," they wrote, "will ensure that important animal enterprises, like biomedical industries, stay in California, for example, rather than go to India or China."
One way in particular the bill is protecting industry is through its treatment of "tertiary targeting" â€“ an activist tactic aimed not at the animal-abusing company itself, but other businesses that the animal enterprise depends on to stay in business.
The AETA expands the reach of current laws aimed at animal-rights groups to give prosecutors the ability to charge activists as terrorists if they target "a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise."
Cooney says tertiary targeting is an important tactic used by animal-rights groups, and its success is what partly prompted the legislation. For instance, in an effort to cripple the animal-testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) â€“ which activists charge with killing hundreds of animals a day â€“ groups like Hugs for Puppies protested other companies that did business with HLS.
Cooney said activists held demonstrations outside of company employeesâ€™ homes and offices, and also called companiesâ€™ boards of directors to appeal to them. After being targeted by Hugs for Puppies, the aerosol-spray manufacturer Penn Century broke ties with HLS and issued a statement condemning animal cruelty.
Cooney said tertiary targeting has "allowed small, grassroots organizations to wield a lot of power, even though they donâ€™t have millions of dollars and thousands of members."