Animal rights activists filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday to challenge the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), a law they say has violated their First Amendment rights and allows the government to label peaceful protesters as "terrorists."
Plaintiffs Sarahjane Blum and Iver "J" Johnson, who have both been animal rights activists for more than a decade, said AETA intimidated activists into silence and squashed their movement.
"I spent years uncovering conditions on foie gras farms and educating the public about the way ducks and geese are abused," said Blum. "I no longer feel free to speak my mind on these issues out of fear that my advocacy could actually convince people to stop eating foie gras - affecting those businesses' bottom line and turning me into an animal enterprise terrorist."
Critics claim AETA has implications for dissenters beyond the animal rights movement. Attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), who are representing the plaintiffs, told reporters that the Bush-era law is too broad and could be interpreted as designating certain acts of civil disobedience as terrorist activity.
Meeropol said AETA's language is so broad that Occupy Wall Street protesters could be labeled terrorists if they caused a bank with a cafeteria that serves meat to lose property or business during an action.
On the surface, AETA seems to target direct action groups like the Animal Liberation Front that, in the past, have taken credit for arsons that destroyed factory farms and liberating animals from laboratories. AETA is often lumped in with the so-called Green Scare of the last decade, which saw a government crackdown on animal rights and environmental activists in the name of fighting "eco-terrorism."
Fur farmers and pharmaceutical companies that test products on animals lobbied for AETA and claim the law protects property from destruction and employees from intimidation. Critics, however, claim the AETA is written so broadly that anyone who interferes with an animal enterprise's profit margins could be labeled a terrorist and sent to prison.
Johnson said his fellow activists are now afraid to organize and engage in legal protest activity because they fear even marching and chanting could be considered terrorist activity under AETA.
"There was a general fear in the community that engaging in First Amendment speech could cause them to be designated terrorists under the AETA," said Johnson.
The law amends the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA) and makes it easier for the justice department to target animal rights activists. In 2006, a group of activists from the group Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty now known as the SHAC 7 were convicted of conspiring to violate AEPA by publishing a web site advocating protest activity against animal testing labs and their employees. Each activist received prison sentences for this web publishing.
In 2009, terrorism officials arrested four activists under AETA in California for protesting in front of people's homes. The activists faced ten years in prison for leafleting, chanting, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk and using the Internet to find information on animal researchers. A federal judge dismissed the case in 2010 after CCR filed a motion.