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The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA)

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The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush on November 27, 2006. The law was pushed through Congress by wealthy biomedical & agri-business industry groups such as the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition (AEPC), the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), with bipartisan support from legislators like Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative James Sensenbrenner. The new law replaced its predecessor, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), which had become law in 1992.

The AEPA was put on the books in 1992 by well-funded industries that exploit animals. Proponents of the AEPA argued that the number of violent attacks committed by so-called animal rights extremists on farming and research facilities was escalating, and that the AEPA was necessary to protect these facilities. They claimed that (1) existing state & federal laws had failed to curtail such acts, and (2) these attacks disrupted vital services relied on by millions of Americans. Despite these assertions, the language of the AEPA swept up constitutionally-protected free speech activities, even though legislators believed they had struck a balance between the right to protest and the need to provide additional criminal penalties for violent acts.

Fast forward to 2006, the proponents of the AETA repeated these same arguments again in support of this new law. Citing some recent activities, the proponents asserted that existing law had not provided a sufficient deterrent, and that animal rights extremists were using new tactics such as making threats and targeting anyone affiliated with animal enterprises. Therefore, the federal law had to be expanded to address such acts. Yet in actuality, 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.

AETA supporters claim the bill contains language to protect free speech activities. In fact, some Democratic legislators mistakenly came out in favor of the AETA because of its supposed First Amendment protections. For example, Senator Leahy, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, supported the bill because he believed it had been amended to remove penalties for nonviolent activities as well as actions that might cause a loss of profits. Representative Scott, the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, asserted that the AETA excluded First Amendment activity and acts of peaceful civil disobedience in announcing his support of the bill.

In late September 2006, the bill was passed out of the Senate by Unanimous Consent. Once on the House side, Representative Dennis Kucinich highlighted his concerns, emphasizing: 

  • Existing federal laws were adequate;
  • The bill created a special class of crimes for a specific type of protest, and;
  • Such a broad terrorist label would chill free speech.

He also urged Congress to pay more attention to the issues raised by the millions of Americans concerned about the humane treatment of animals, and to consider legislation in response to those concerns.

Despite all this, the bill was pushed through late at night, with inadequate notice, and with only a fraction of Congresspersons present to vote on it.

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