New Lawsuit Challenges the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as Unconstitutional

by Will Potter on December 15, 2011

in Terrorism Court Cases,Terrorism Legislation

Activists challenge the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as unconstitutional.A new lawsuit challenges the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as unconstitutional because it has given activists reason to fear that they could be prosecuted as “terrorists” for non-violent civil disobedience, protests, and First Amendment activity.

The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of 5 longtime animal rights activists. The activists say the vague wording of the law, and the corporate-led campaigns against animal rights activism, have made them alter their own advocacy.

The landmark case has implications for all social justice movement, beyond the animal rights activists targeted. It sets a dangerous precedent for labeling anyone who effectively threatens corporate profits a “terrorist.” As the Occupy Wall Street Movement grows rapidly, and has begun reclaiming foreclosed homes from banks and shutting down ports, this lawsuit couldn’t come at a more pressing time. And with the impending passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, the dangers of this parallel legal system for “terrorists” has become strikingly clear.

The lawsuit seeks to strike down the law for violating the First and Fifth Amendments [read the criminal complaint in Blum v. Holder]. Specifically, it argues that the law is unconstitutional for 3 reasons:

  1. It is so broad that it has had a chilling effect on free speech. The law hasn’t outlawed animal rights activism, but it has made activists think twice about using their rights. This was the primary point I raised in my Congressional testimony against the law in 2006, and since then the political climate has become even more toxic. The first use of the law was based on activists allegedly chalking slogans on the sidewalk and wearing bandanas. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is an attempt by corporations to use the power of fear in order to silence their opposition.
  2. The language is so vague that people can’t decipher what is illegal. The law’s criminalization of “interfering with” the operations of an animal enterprise, or causing a “loss of profits,” leave activists wondering if they could be labeled a terrorist for a successful lawful campaign. This is compounded by the law’s emphasis on “tertiary targeting”: it not only protects animal enterprises,” but any business that does business with an animal enterprise. When politicians, the courts, lawyers, and national organizations cannot agree on the meaning of this law, it is dangerously overbroad.
  3. It singles out animal rights activist because of their political beliefs and their effective advocacy. Meanwhile, violence by anti-abortion extremists is not being labeled as terrorism. For more on this: “If Sarah Palin Were an Animal Rights Activist, She’d Have Already Been Convicted of ‘Terrorism.” Singling out groups of people because of their political beliefs, and restricting their First Amendment rights, is antithetical to a healthy democracy.

Here is a detailed, step-by-step analysis of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act if you are interested. I wanted to focus a bit on the people involved in the lawsuit, though:

Sarahjane Blum has been an animal rights activist for 23 years. She co-founded in 2003, which exposed the cruelty of the foie gras industry and helped California to ban foie gras farming. According to the lawsuit: “While she had knowingly and openly violated the law many times through acts of non-violent civil disobedience, she was unwilling to face the possibility of prosecution and sentencing as a terrorist. She was stunned that the ethical, important work that she had devoted her life to had been turned overnight into terrorism.

Ryan Shapiro is now a doctoral candidate at MIT studying the history of political repression against animal rights activists. With Sarahjane Blum, he co-founded, produced a documentary film, and spoke publicly about his work. He was also friends with the SHAC 7 — a group of activists convicted as terrorists. “Faced with the imprisonment of his friends, and with the passage of the AETA, Mr. Shapiro began to worry that the price for peaceful protest and civil disobedience was one he could not afford to pay.”

Lana Lehr has organized for the welfare of rabbits, and also protested the sale of their fur. After the passage of the AETA, she found herself altering her protest activity and censoring her words and her writing online.

Lauren Gazzola is one of the SHAC 7. She recounts a lecture she gave at a law school class where she censored herself from encouraging activists to follow her advocacy, because she feared her words would be used as evidence of conspiracy to violate the AETA.

Jay Johnson, who has confirmed that he has been placed on a terrorist watchlist, has witnessed the chilling effect on grassroots animal rights activism. After the case of the SHAC 7 and the passage of the AETA, protest attendance plummeted. For instance, he recounts a protest against a company affiliated with Huntingdon Life Sciences: “When he arrived at the site of the planned protest, he was met by over 40 police officers in riot gear, and not a single other protestor.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I have known several of these plaintiffs for well over a decade, as activists and as friends.

I point this out because I want to take the liberty of saying that this lawsuit was not an easy decision for them. There’s of course a fear of drawing a giant red target on one’s back, but the primary concern of these plaintiffs is not themselves — it’s the animals, and those advocating on their behalf. All of these activists are deeply committed to the animal rights movement, and they had to answer the uncomfortable question: “Does acknowledging fear draw even more attention to it? Could this make even more people afraid?”

But this lawsuit is more about courage than fear. It is about these plaintiffs and the CCR having the courage to acknowledge that this political climate exists, that what we are experiencing is real and it is valid, and that we can’t move forward by pretending it doesn’t affect us. It is to say, unequivocally: “Yes, we have been afraid. Yes, we have all known fear. And now it is time to fight back.”

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