November 16, 2010, New York – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the United States Supreme Court to hear the case U.S. v. Kjonaas. In an amicus brief filed today on behalf of CCR and the First Amendment Lawyers Association, lawyers argued that the prosecution of activists for their menacing speech at public demonstrations and their internet advocacy violates the First Amendment.
“The need for Supreme Court review here is paramount,” said Matthew Strugar, cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights on the SHAC case. “The lower court’s decision gives the government carte blanche to prosecute organizers of internet-based social justice campaigns that involve any hint of intimidation by rogue third parties. That kind of liability flies in the face of decades of Supreme Court precedent.”
The activists were all involved in Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), an international direct action animal rights campaign to close down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), Europe's largest contract animal-testing laboratory, that tests products like household cleaners, drugs, pesticides, and food additives on approximately 75,000 animals every year - from rats to wild baboons. Through residential protests and secondary targeting – protesting companies that were suppliers or affiliates of HLS – SHAC-USA pressured investors, security companies, and other business affiliates to withdraw their ties with HLS. In 2000, HLS shares plunged and HLS was dropped from the New York Stock Exchange.
The animal rights activists, known as the SHAC7, were indicted in 2004 for violating the Animal Enterprise Protection Act based on their internet postings, public speeches, and facilitation of demonstrations. Previous appeals were denied, and the activists have served four- to six-year sentences. The lower court acknowledged that much of the activists’ speech and advocacy, in itself, was protected by the First Amendment. Still, that court held that the activists’ “speeches, protests and web postings” could be criminalized as “implied threats” given the broad historical context of one act of violence by animal rights activists in other countries, and acts of property destruction in this country. The SHAC7 were not shown or alleged to have personally engaged in any violence or property destruction.
The main organizing tool of SHAC-USA was their website. As reported by the Toronto Star, “home addresses for corporate officers and other employees of target companies would be posted. Gleaned from public sources such as annual reports and phone books, they would include a disclaimer saying SHAC-USA advocated only legal protest.”
Despite the website disclaimer, some individuals – never identified - carried out unlawful protests against HLS and its affiliates. Some homes and cars were vandalized, gates were chained shut and blocked, and vaguely threatening phone calls were made. The SHAC-USA website reported on both the legal and illegal protest activity against HLS.
“Not only were these young activists prosecuted for their speech alone,” explained Rachel Meeropol, staff attorney at CCR, “but they were prosecuted as terrorists. Speech, even menacing speech, is not an act of terrorism.”