Dear Congress: You Lied to Me About the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act

by Will Potter on March 4, 2009

in Terrorism Legislation

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has a chilling effect on First Amendment activity.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act has a chilling effect on First Amendment activity.

March 4, 2009

Dear Member of Congress:

When I testified before the House Judiciary Committee about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, I argued that such sweeping legislation risks criminalizing First Amendment activity as “terrorism” and chilling free speech. Members of the committee, including Rep. Bobby Scott and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, quickly dismissed my concerns and promised that the law would only target property destruction and violence. Lawmakers went so far as to respond to my concerns by including token language in the bill exempting the First Amendment.

The FBI recently used the law, for the first time, and erased any question of whether it will target First Amendment activity. Agents arrested four animal rights activists for “chalking defamatory slogans,” protesting while wearing masks, distributing fliers, and attending a home protest where an alleged forced entry took place. Members of Congress, you have either been duped by the corporations and law enforcement agencies that supported this law, or you have lied to me and lied to the American people.

The Constitutional threat posed by this law extends far beyond these arrests or any that may follow. Corporations, law enforcement agencies and politicians are using “terrorism” rhetoric to instill fear and silence dissent; the true danger posed by this legislation is its chilling effect on speech. Through interviews with hundreds of activists across the country, I have heard that activists feel they must either remain silent about the issues they care about or risk being labeled a “terrorist.” That is not a choice any American should have to make.

This letter may come as quite a surprise to you. Few members of Congress knew of this legislation, and others simply saw no cause for concern. Indeed, the bill passed the Senate in the middle of the night, by unanimous consent. And its supporters rushed this bill through the House using the suspension calendar, with only six Representatives in the room. In a striking example of the hypocrisy of this “War on Terrorism,” many lawmakers were on the national mall praising the non-violent civil disobedience of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King while the House labeled the same tactics used by animal rights activists as “terrorism.”

Members of Congress must send a message, loud and clear, that the tragedy of September 11th should not be exploited to push a political agenda, and that the word “terrorist” should not be a fluid brand to slap on the enemy of the hour. Scarce anti-terrorism resources should not be squandered harassing, infiltrating, and arresting political activists. Flying planes into buildings is not the same thing as chalking slogans.

It is time to repeal the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Animal rights activists are the first political activists targeted by legislation like this. Unless you take action, they will not be the last.


Will Potter

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