Activists Challenge Animal Rights Terrorism Law as a Violation of Free Speech
December 15, 2011, Boston – Today, animal rights activists who allege their freedom of speech has been violated by the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) filed a lawsuit asking the court to strike down the statute as unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs, who have long histories of participation in peaceful protests and animal rights advocacy, say that fear of prosecution as terrorists has led them to limit or even cease their lawful advocacy. Enacted in 2006, the AETA punishes anyone found to have caused the loss of property or profits to a business or other institution that uses or sells animals (or animal products) or to “a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise.”
“I spent years uncovering conditions on foie gras farms and educating the public about the way ducks and geese are abused,” said lead Plaintiff Sarahjane Blum. “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.”
Critics argue that the law is so broad that it punishes peaceful protests that cause businesses to lose profit or increase their security costs and turns non-violent civil disobedience into “terrorism.” And though it targets animal rights activists specifically, the AETA is written so expansively it could turn a successful labor protest at Wal-Mart into an act of domestic terrorism. Non-violent violators face up to twenty years in prison, depending on the amount of profit loss that results.
Groups including the Fur Commission USA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and several pharmaceutical companies lobbied for the law.
“The AETA turns the kind of activity and advocacy we celebrate from the Civil Rights movement into a terrorist offense,” said Center for Constitutional Rights staff attorney Rachel Meeropol, who is representing the plaintiffs. “This law takes direct aim at the proud tradition of dissent in the United States. It creates the potential for prosecuting almost any activist as a terrorist if their protests result in economic damage to a company that is somehow ‘connected to’ an animal enterprise.”
In the first use of the AETA, in 2009, four activists were indicted and arrested in California by the Joint Terrorism Task Force for protesting, writing on sidewalks with chalk, chanting, leafleting, and using the Internet to find information on animal researchers. They each faced ten years in prison. A federal judge dismissed that case in 2010 upon CCR’s motion, as the indictments failed to indicate how the protestors had actually violated the law.
The AETA amended the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), which punished causing a “physical disruption” to an animal enterprise. In 2006, six activists were convicted in New Jersey for conspiring to violate the AEPA, and served between one and six years in prison for publishing a website that advocated and reported on protest activity against an animal testing lab, its business affiliates, and their employees. The activists were not accused of injuring anyone or vandalizing any property. One of the defendants in that case, Lauren Gazzola, is a plaintiff in the AETA challenge filed today. The Center for Constitutional Rights provided amicus support in the New Jersey AEPA case, and was co-counsel in the California AETA case.
Today’s case, Blum v. Holder, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Alexander Reinert, an associate professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, along with David Milton and Howard Friedman, of the Law Offices of Howard Friedman PC, are co-counsel on the case.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.