Fear for the First: Is Activist Speech Terrorism?

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Capital & Main

August, 2014
By Leighton Woodhouse

On Monday, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a request to the U.S. Supreme Court for judicial review of Blum v. Holder, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. The request, and the history that led up to it, provides a glimpse into the ways in which the free speech rights of political activists continue to be eroded as a result of the defining legal and constitutional framework of our era, the “War on Terror.”

The brainchild of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the AETA was crafted as a direct response to the extraordinary success of an animal rights campaign called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). SHAC had effectively employed what its members believed to be legal, constitutionally protected activity to disrupt the business practices of a notorious animal testing corporation accused of engaging routinely in horrific abuses of animals, such as dissection of a live and conscious monkey.

In March of 2006, at the height of the Bush administration’s War on Terror, six SHAC activists were charged, convicted as “terrorists” and sentenced to a combined 23 years under the AETA’s predecessor law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. Their crime: posting information on a website about illegal underground actions carried out by activists not directly connected to SHAC. The AETA was passed in the aftermath of the convictions after biomedical and agricultural industry lobbyists and the FBI argued for the need for “more effective tools” with which to yet more vigorously pursue and prosecute activists engaged in “criminal ‘direct action.’”

The AETA criminalizes protest activity aimed at “damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise,” specifically citing activism that results in “the loss of profits.” It brands violators of the law “terrorists,” making them eligible for special sentencing enhancements and incarceration in super-maximum security prisons or, worse, Communications Management Units.

Read the full piece here.