Animal Enterprise Protection Act
The Animal Enterprise Protection Act:
Using an obscure law to charge nonviolent activists with terrorism
By WILL POTTER
In March, six activists were convicted on “animal enterprise terrorism” charges—that’s right, terrorism—for campaigning to shut down the notorious animal-testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. In September, they will be sentenced: two defendants face up to a year in federal prison, and others likely face five to 10 years.
They weren’t accused of murder, bombings or taking hostages. They’re big crime? Running a website.
They posted news about the international campaign to close HLS—legal actions like protests and illegal actions like stealing animals from labs—and unabashedly supported all of it. The government never accused the SHAC 7 of committing any of those acts, but said that posting communiqués and supporting direct action amounted to a campaign of harassment, intimidation and “terrorism.”
Even in this post 9/11 climate, running a website probably wouldn’t top most people’s list of terrorist plots. So how did corporations use the government to turn protected—albeit controversial—First Amendment activity into “terrorism”?
ANIMAL ENTERPRISE PROTECTION ACT
The Patriot Act, domestic spying, no-fly lists: the scope of the War on Terrorism’s impact on activism, and everyday life, grows wider and wider. But the legislation that led to these charges started long before 9/11, and had been sitting idly until now.
In 1992 Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Protection Act. It received little attention except from groups like the National Association for Biomedical Research that pushed it through.
It created the crime of “animal enterprise terrorism” for anyone who travels in “interstate or foreign commerce” (like crossing state lines or using the mail) and “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any property (including animals or records) used by the animal enterprise, or conspires to do so.”
It also spelled out sentencing guidelines:
- Causing less than $10,000 in damages means fines and/or six months in prison.
- Causing more than $10,000 in damages means fines and/or three years in prison.
- Causing “serious bodily injury” means fines and/or 20 years in prison.
- Causing human death means fines and/or a sentence of “life or for any term of years.”
When the law passed, some green and civil rights groups cautioned that its vague language could open the floodgates to prosecution of non-violent activists. They noted that causing “the loss of any property” is the objective of any boycott or sustained activist campaign against industry: if activist campaigns didn’t hurt profits, corporations would never pay attention. Bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s probably caused a loss of property for those businesses, and that’s why they were key tactics in the civil rights movement.
A SLOW START
Those floodgates didn’t open, though. The law sat on the shelf for years, and industry groups started complaining that the government did not use it to go after activists.
One reason is that law enforcement hadn’t caught many members of the Animal Liberation Front or Earth Liberation Front. And they still haven’t: underground activists have claimed credit for more than 1,200 criminal incidents since 1990, according to the F.B.I., and there are 150 pending “eco-terror” investigations.
Animal abuse industries were undeterred. They began pushing for stiffer penalties and even broader language in the law.
In an analysis of the act, referenced repeatedly by industry groups, a member of the board of directors of the National Animal Interest Alliance said sentencing in the law had to be increased. Edward J. Walsh said the absence of a death penalty:
“…is a veritable invitation to serious terrorists to take advantage of what appears to be a clear mismatch between sentencing guidelines and the severity of the criminal offenses referenced in the Act; the implication is, ‘Come on. Take the plunge. You will be back on the street in two, maybe three years, no matter what you do.’ In this regard, the Act is an embarrassment.”
Since the law wasn’t being used to go after arsonists, Walsh and others pushed to expand the law’s definition of terrorism to include “not-so-savage acts” like “pies in the face” that they said were taking a bigger toll on the industry. Harassment and character defamation constitute “something worse and far more dangerous to society than a simple punch in the nose.”
In an eerie forecast of President George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric in the War on Terrorism, Walsh went on the offensive against any lawmakers who attempt to roll back the law:
“Congressmen and women who are sympathetic to the cause of animal rights must be reminded that they are aiding and abetting terrorism when they work to dilute the language of criminal statutes written to protect scientists, businessmen and women, entertainers and farmers, as well as law-abiding citizens in general, from hate-inspired violence.”
“In fact it is hard to understand the point of having such an act in the first place except as a symbolic gesture. It would be far better off to simply charge animal rights terrorists with arson, burglary or what have you and ask judges to consider the political nature of their crimes during the sentencing phase.”
The government first used the law in 1998, charging Peter Young and Justin Samuel with animal enterprise terrorism for releasing thousands of mink from Wisconsin fur farms. Samuel pleaded guilty, was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay over $360,000 in fines. Young was on the run for seven years, and then caught in 2005 and sentenced to two years in prison.
Ostensibly, that’s what the law was meant to do: land convictions of underground activists who “cause the loss of any property,” including rescuing animals from abusive industries.
Fast forward to the only other convictions under the law: a group of activists who were never charged with breaking into a fur farm, spray-painting slogans, or breaking windows. The SHAC 7 simply made a point of vocally supporting those who did.
So the law has been used to convict Animal Liberation Front activists, along with activists running a website. But industry groups still want more.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
Even before the SHAC7 conviction, industry groups pushed for expansions of “animal enterprise terrorism” legislation both federally and at the state level. The convictions of Justin Samuel, Peter Young, and now the SHAC defendants, have only whetted their appetites. As David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry lobby group, said after the conviction: “This is just the starting gun.” (Toronto Star, 3/13/06, “U.S. terror hunt targets animal activists,” Walkom).
Here’s a sample:
- 1996: Congress amended the restitution provisions of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act.
- 1999: The U.S. Senate approved an amendment to the Juvenile Justice Act that would have increased penalties under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act and created a database of “eco-terrorism” crimes. It was introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), but did not become law.
- 2001: Congressman George Nethercutt (R-WA) introduced the Agroterrorism Prevention Act. It would have increased penalties, allowed for the death penalty, and established a National Agroterrorism Incident Clearinghouse, and provided grants to colleges and universities to protect against attacks by animal rights activists. The bill didn’t make it out of subcommittee.
- 2002: Congress increased maximum penalties under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act.
- 2004: On May 18 the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing, “Animal Rights: Activism vs. Criminality,” where FBI Deputy Assistant Director John E. Lewis joined CEOs and researchers to call for stronger legislation. He said law enforcement needed more tools to go after activists, like SHAC member, who focus on “tertiary” targets in order to influence the primary company.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) objected to the hearing and said:
“When most Americans think of threats that currently face this country, we do not mean ‘animal and eco-terrorism.’ Indeed, most Americans would not consider the harassment of animal testing facilities to be ‘terrorism,’ any more than they would consider anti-globalization protestors or anti-war protestors or women’s health activists to be terrorists.”
- 2005: Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) introduced the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act to stiffen penalties and expand the original law. It would include “tertiary targets,” with the goal of “prohibiting intentional damage of property belonging to a person or organization with ties to an animal enterprise.” Representative Thomas Petri (R-WI) introduced a similar bill (my testimony before Congress on this legislation can be read here).
The Humane Society of the United States, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, have opposed the bill because, as HSUS notes in a letter to members of Congress, “this amendment would sweep up and discourage lawful and constitutionally protected activity intended to cause loss of profits, such as boycotts, whistle blowing, protests, media campaigning, enforcement actions by private humane societies, etc.”
The legislation is pending in House and Senate committees.