“AETA Signed Into Law,” Earth First Journal

“Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act Signed Into Law,” Earth First Journal, January, 2007, 8-9.


After a cold and wet morning, politicians and celebrities slogged through the muck of the National Mall on November 13, to pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and break ground on the new national memorial in his honor. Democrats and Republicans, Clinton and Bush, Oprah and Jesse were all on hand in muddied wingtips and pumps, clamoring to show their support for the civil rights leader and his once-controversial tactics.

Representative John Lewis of Georgia told PBS NewsHour, “King inspired me and thousands of other Americans to get in the way. He inspired us to get in trouble. But it was good trouble; it was necessary trouble. And that’s why we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. today.”

But hours later, those who had spent the morning waxing eloquent about dissent and making trouble were nowhere to be found as about half a dozen lawmakers allowed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) to pass the House of Representatives on a voice vote. Already passed by the Senate in September, the AETA was signed into law by President Bush on November 27.

The AETA is essentially an expansion of the existing Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) of 1992. The punishable offenses included in the AEPA are limited to: causing “physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise” and “economic damage exceeding $10,000”; causing serious bodily injury or death in the course of these acts; or conspiring to do so. The AETA expands these punishable offenses to include: any damage or loss of property associated with animal enterprise, with no minimum dollar amount; placing a “person in reasonable fear of death… or serious bodily injury”; or conspiring to do so. It also prescribes harsher, escalating penalties.

The AETA is ostensibly meant to target underground, illegal actions committed in the name of animal rights by groups like the Animal Liberation Front. But underground activists won’t lose much sleep over this bill. Their actions are already illegal (and they know it); the government has already labeled them the “number one domestic terrorist threat.” And yet these activists continue to demonstrate that heavy-handed police tactics will not deter them. Legal, aboveground activists are the ones who should be most concerned about this vague and overly broad legislation, under which they could be considered “terrorists.” The AETA sends a chilling message to activists of all social movements that political opportunists can use the rhetoric and resources of the War on Terrorism against them.

Corporations like Pfizer, Wyeth and GlaxoSmithKline joined the United Egg Producers, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and other New McCarthyists to rush through the AETA legislation on the very first day back from congressional recess. It seems that the shift to Democratic control of Congress put a little spring in their step and gave this legislation—similar versions of which have languished in Congress since the mid-’90s—a new urgency. The law was rushed through the House as part of the suspension calendar, a political move used to usher through so-called non-controversial legislation with little debate.

Virginia Representative Bobby Scott—often called the “go-to-guy” in the House on civil liberties and civil rights issues—came out swinging in support of the “ecoterrorism” bill. Scott, a Democrat, said that existing laws have been “reasonably effective,” but “gaps and loopholes” prevent law enforcement from going after animal rights “extremists.”

Scott failed to note, even in passing, that the existing AEPA was used to successfully prosecute seven Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) activists on “animal enterprise terrorism” charges for running a website. Ignoring this crucial bit of information, Scott said that activists are taking advantage of the fact that the AEPA doesn’t cover “affiliates and associates” of animal enterprises.

Disturbingly, Scott said in passing that civil disobedience could be covered in the bill—which some other supporters of the bill have denied—but he tried to ease public fears by saying that the civil disobedience would have to cause disruption and loss of profits to qualify, and that “it must be proven that such losses were specifically intended.” The same congressman who frequently praises the achievements of the civil rights movement is suddenly standing on the House floor and advocating the inclusion of that movement’s tactics in a “terrorism” bill.

Apparently, the actions of animal rights activists aren’t “good trouble.” They aren’t “necessary trouble.” In a different time, though, civil rights activists weren’t “good trouble,” either. It’s not a stretch to imagine similar legislation being used to target civil rights activists, if only Strom Thurmond had thought of it first. Supporters would probably have said it was all in the name of cracking down on “extremists” like Malcolm X. Meanwhile, anyone paying attention would see clear as day that the legislation was meant to have a chilling effect on all dissent.

Representative Thomas Petri, a Republican from Wisconsin usually in disagreement with Scott, said much of the same. He had the nerve to stand on the House floor and say, with a straight face, that current federal law, including the AEPA, has been “inadequate” in going after animal rights activists. Petri knows full well that all the crimes listed in this bill are already crimes, that the original bill has been used successfully, and that the animal and environmental movements have never claimed a single human life.

Petri and the corporations that support him call the existing legislation “inadequate” because, in their mind, the true threat is not the underground wing of the movement but the movement itself. The Malcolm Xes are threats but so are the MLKs, and they know it. That’s where this vague and overly broad legislation comes into place, wrapping up civil disobedience, undercover investigations and other non-violent activity as “terrorism.”

Only Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio spoke up against this dangerous legislation. “This bill was written to have a chilling effect,” he said, “on a specific type of protest.” Kucinich got in a little back-and-forth with Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner about the bill. Sensenbrenner repeatedly cited a provision of the bill that “exempts” First Amendment activity. Thank you to Sensenbrenner and our patriotic representatives for reminding us that there is still a First Amendment. However, saying, “This law is constitutional,” doesn’t make it so. If anything, it’s an admission that the bill has serious flaws.

At one point, Sensenbrenner read off a list of quotes from animal rights activists that he said exemplified the targets of the legislation. Kucinich promptly noted that “those statements, in and of themselves, are constitutionally protected speech. Yet under this bill, they suddenly find themselves shifting into an area of doubt, which goes back to my initial claim that this bill was written to have a chilling effect upon a specific type of protest.”

But perhaps the most disturbing segment of this whole scare-mongering debacle was how Sensenbrenner ended the floor debate: “This is a good bill. I think that all of the fears that the gentleman from Ohio has placed on the record are [considered] ill-founded by practically everybody who has looked through this bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).”

The ACLU, in fact, had sent a letter to members of Congress on March 6, urging opposition to the legislation, and the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) sent a nearly identical letter. The biggest concerns raised in these letters were never addressed by Congress. Yet while the HSUS and other mainstream animal welfare groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were outspoken against the AETA, the ACLU informed lawmakers in September that “the ACLU does not oppose this bill.”

Why? Perhaps because there are so many other civil liberties issues competing for critical attention. Perhaps because corporate scare-mongering and green baiting has turned animal rights activists into political lepers. Or perhaps history repeats itself. The ACLU has a long, venerable history of defending the civil liberties of even the most unsavory characters, including the KKK. Yet during the Red Scare of the ’40s and ’50s, the ACLU formally barred communists from leadership or staff positions. Meanwhile, the National Lawyers Guild took a beating for refusing to name names and purge members who also belonged to communist organizations, but it stood its ground.

This time around, the National Lawyers Guild was out front opposing the AETA and the Green Scare. And this time around, the silence of the ACLU spoke volumes, essentially giving the Green Scare the green light.

Will Potter is an award-winning reporter based in Washington, DC, who testified before Congress on the civil liberties implications of the AETA. He is the creator of GreenIsTheNewRed.com, where he blogs about the Green Scare and history repeating itself.