Can exposing and peacefully protesting animal mistreatment be considered terrorism? The answer depends on how you define terrorism – a question now being tested inside a Boston courtroom under the auspices of the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), a vague law that challenges many non-violent tactics used to expose industries with a history of abusing animals.
When it passed the U.S. Senate without an actual vote and was signed into law by George W. Bush in 2006, AETA generated little public outcry. The same can’t be said today as Rachel Meerpol, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, is representing plaintiffs in a high-profile First District Appeals Court case in Boston where she hopes to see AETA struck down on First Amendment violations.
The five animal rights activists represented in the lawsuit – Sarahjane Blum, Ryan Shapiro, Lana Lehr, Lauren Gazzola, and Iver Robert Johnson – say their right to free speech is being chilled by the law. In oral arguments made on February 3, Meerpol claimed that language in the bill was over-broad and featured “content and viewpoint discrimination,” according to an audio recording of the hearing.
Meerpol told Occupy.com this week that the law is having a “chilling effect” on protests involving animal rights.
"As corporations become more powerful and politicians become more indebted to corporate interests, we’re likely to see further erosion of First Amendment protection for advocacy that threatens their profits," Meerpol said.
It’s a powerful assertion – and not an untrue one. The driving force behind the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was the ultra-rightAmerican Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which wrote the model bill for AETA along with agri-business and biomedical industry groups including the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition and the Center for Consumer Freedom.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC – a secretive, back-room lobbying coalition that represents corporate interests and harnesses conservative state legislative power to write and pass pro-industry policy – is 98% funded by corporations.
AETA was specifically designed to target individuals exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech regarding the exposure of animal rights abuses and violations – by labeling them “eco-terrorists” and getting them locked up. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a democrat, along with Oklahoma Republican Senator Jim Inhofe and Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner were early strong supporters of the bill.
In an audio recording of the Boston trial, the attorney representing the Department of State said the law did not represent a “reasonable chill” on constitutional rights because it did not prohibit the conduct that the plaintiffs wished to engage in – according to the law, “any expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
However, at its core, the law represents a clear attempt to silence animal rights protesters – particularly when that protest involves releasing information or recorded footage that might economically hurt a business or the industry overall.
This can apply not only to activists and journalists doing their job, but even to people who hand out fliers that shine a light on animal abuses. The SHAC 7 – six activists and a corporation, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA Inc., who were found guilty of multiple federal felonies for their alleged role campaigning to close down the notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences animal testing lab – were [convicted in 2004 and each sentenced to four to six years in prison for “animal enterprise terrorism”]http://www.greenisthenewred.com/blog/tag/shac-7/) under the earlier version of the law known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act.
Members of the SHAC 7 are among those represented in the current appeals case. The greatest challenge to opposing AETA in court – a difficulty that has played out in numerous trials involving laws passed in post-9/11 America – concerns the language of the bill, which is considered so vague as to encompass anyone who interferes in any way with businesses the AETA law is designed to protect.
The law and ensuing court cases have thus far received sparse media attention. But activist groups are starting to raise their voice. John Di Leonardo, an anthrozoologist and president of Long Island Orchestrating for Nature, said in a statement, “The only reason AETA is law is due to the immense wealth of the agribusiness lobby... The fact that this law pertains to only animal activists and not activists from other movements is a type of prejudice itself and a total insult to civil rights generally.”
“Is the terrorist the one trying to stop terrors from being inflicted,” said Di Leonardo, “or the one trying to instill terror in the former for practicing their First Amendment rights?”
And this raises perhaps the most crucial question: Why use the word “terrorist” to describe a person who peacefully interferes, through media or otherwise, with the business of unethical animal treatment? Is it justified for U.S. lawmakers to equate images of airplanes slamming into skyscrapers with activists who release photos, film or text – or simply hand out leaflets – revealing the torturous situation faced by animals at the hands of corporations?
It is a question the plaintiffs in Boston hope will be asked by Americans more widely, in this case and others moving forward. You can follow twitter updates on the AETA appeals case using #AETAspeakout.