The Criminalization of Animal Rights Activism

Picture by Pax Ahimsa Gethen (Wikimedia Commons)

By Genevieve Cottraux

Is supporting animal rights terrorism?  Is nonviolent activism terrorism?  According to some interpretations of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), they are.  Former President George W. Bush signed the AETA in 2006.  It is an expansion of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) passed by Congress in 1992 at the lobbying of the National Association for Biomedical Research to silence animal rights activists protesting the use of animals for testing.  The AEPA was used successfully to convict the group known as the SHAC 7 (6 activists and a corporation, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA) for animal enterprise terrorism.  The SHAC 7 targeted notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences with a website pressuring businesses with ties to the lab to sever those ties.  In bringing charges, the U. S. government called the tactic “tertiary targeting.”  Huntingdon has been exposed for animal cruelty on at least 7 different undercover investigations.  Members of the SHAC 7 served jail terms ranging from 1 to 6 years, even though they caused no property damages or physical injuries.

The corporate lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council was behind the passing of the 2006 expansion that allowed, for the first time, the application of the word “terrorist” to animal rights activists, and made international tertiary targeting illegal.  According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the American Legislative Exchange Council is a corporate-funded organization of state legislators who work toward free enterprise at the expense of individual civil rights.  Also pressing for passage of the law was John Lewis of the FBI, who was quoted by CNN as saying, “The No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism, animal rights movement.”  Corporate interests behind the law include the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline.

AETA, also known as 18 U.S.C. § 43, addresses “force, violence, and threats involving animal enterprises,” and was crafted by corporate interests for the purpose of protecting their profits from animal abuse and exploitation, according to the Civil Liberties Defense Center.  In an article in Mother Jones, the law was described as prohibiting any action

“for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise” or that “causes the loss of any real or personal property.” . . . The law also prohibits “economic damage” to an enterprise, which includes loss of profits and pressure put on any investors or other companies that do business with the animal enterprise.  Even the definition of “animal enterprise” is so broad that it could be construed as covering any institution that has a cafeteria selling meat or cheese products, argues Rachel Meeropol, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights . . .

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Meeropol explained,

The law criminalizes causing damage or loss to the real or personal property of an animal enterprise. . . . 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.

The expanded law was used for the first time in a 2009 case in California, the United States v. Buddenberg, in which 4 protesters were charged after allegedly chalking a sidewalk, chanting, handing out fliers, and protesting in front of the homes of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Santa Cruz.  The Joint Terrorism Force of the FBI arrested activists Joseph Buddenberg, Maryam Khajavi, Nathan Pope, and Adriana Stumpo, also known as the “AETA 4,” in February 2008.  Federal Judge Ronald Whyte, Northern California District, San Jose, dismissed the charges in 2010, saying that the actions failed to constitute “true threats” as opposed to Constitutionally-protected political protest.

Blum v. Holder, a suit challenging the constitutionality of AETA, was filed in 2011 by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of 5 animal rights activists, Sarahjane Blum, Ryan Shapiro, Lana Lehr, Lauren Gazzola, and Iver Robert Johnson III, as petitioners against Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.  Filed in the U. S. District Court in the District of Massachusetts, the case was dismissed after amicus briefs were filed by animal research advocacy organization National Association for Biomedical Research.  The judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the case.  According to the CCR, “The judge’s ruling is based on a narrow interpretation of the AETA as criminalizing only property destruction and threats, despite the law’s broad prohibition on causing an animal enterprise any loss of property, which is generally understood to include the loss of profit.”  The CCR filed a request for judicial review to the U. S. Supreme Court, which was denied.

Journalist Leighton Woodhouse commented,

To the growing list of abridgements to civil liberties in the name of the War on Terror—which already includes massive electronic surveillance and draconian criminal penalties for political activism under statutes like the AETA—may be added the innovative notion that laws that serve to chill free speech are immune from constitutional challenge unless and until criminal charges are brought under them.

Under the current Trump administration, Republican lawmakers in 19 states have introduced new anti-protesting bills to their state legislatures.  Although the trend began before Trump’s inauguration in January and the numerous demonstrations that have taken place in the wake of his election, the repression of First Amendment activity is already an issue early in his presidency.  First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams has referred to Trump as “the greatest threat to the First Amendment since the passage of the Sedition Act of 1798.”

David Cole, National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLA) and the Honorable George J. Mitchell Professor in Law and Public Policy at the Georgetown University Law Center, suggests that it is the exercising of our First Amendment rights that will save the First Amendment from attack.  “If we are saved, it will be thanks to actions by citizens exercising their First Amendment rights against Trump.”

The Humane Party, in its commitment to rights for all humans and animals, calls for the repeal of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, Ag-Gag laws, and other attempts to suppress speech, expressive conduct, and political dissent.