September 21, 2016, Chicago – Today, attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) argued before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, urging the court to strike down the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). In United States v. Johnson, two animal rights activists were convicted of “terrorism” under the AETA for freeing thousands of mink from a Midwestern fur farm, for which they faced up to 10 years in federal prison. CCR challenged their conviction, arguing that punishing non-violent activity as “terrorism” is an unconstitutional denial of due process, and that on its face the AETA punishes constitutionally protected expression, violating the First Amendment.
“These defendants engaged in what was essentially an act of non-violent civil disobedience: breaking laws that treat animals as ‘property’ in order to save their lives,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol, who argued today. “To punish them as terrorists renders that word completely meaningless.”
The AETA punishes causing damage or loss to a business or other institution that sells animals or animal products, or to a “person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise.” The law prohibits loss caused by criminal acts and loss caused by boycotts and other activity protected by the First Amendment. Though the defendants in Johnson admitted to releasing animals from fur farms, and served time in prison as a result, they reserved their right to challenge the constitutionality of the AETA.
"Witnessing two thousand mink feel the Earth beneath their feet for the first time on the night of August 13, 2013, was perhaps the most beautiful experience of my life, an act taken in firm opposition to violence and terror,” said Kevin Johnson. “And yet Tyler and I will live the rest of our lives labeled as terrorists – under a law drafted by animal industries to penalize actions more harshly based solely upon the belief system underlying them. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is offensive to the very concept of justice in the United States."
When they were indicted under the AETA, Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang had already faced state charges of “possession of burglary tools,” after a police search during a traffic stop turned up items such as camouflage jackets and bolt cutters. Both men pleaded guilty to the State charges and were sentenced to 30 months and 170 days in prison, respectively. They were subsequently indicted under the AETA in 2014 on the eve of the annual Animal Rights National Conference.
In 2015, two more activists were similarly indicted under the AETA, also for releasing animals and damaging property at fur farms and other so-called animal enterprises, again just days before the national conference. According to Meeropol, these conspicuously timed indictments underscore the real purpose of the AETA: to scare an entire movement into silence.
CCR is joined in its representation of defendant Kevin Johnson by co-counsel at the People’s Law Office. Johnson’s co-defendant Tyler Lang is represented by the Federal Defender Program.