Boston, MA and New York, NY – Last night, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), without addressing the central First Amendment question in the case. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) brought the case on behalf of five long-time animal rights activists who allege that the 2006 law violates their right to free speech. The judge ruled that the men and women suing the government did not have standing to bring the case and therefor the case could not go forward. The judge’s ruling was based on a narrow interpretation of the AETA as criminalizing only property destruction and threats, despite the law’s broad prohibition on causing an animal enterprise any loss of property, which is generally understood to include the loss of profit. Attorneys say they will appeal the dismissal.
“As Judge Tauro recognized, each of our clients has refrained from engaging in constitutionally protected speech out of fear that she or he will be prosecuted as a terrorist under the AETA,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney and lead counsel Rachel Meeropol. “While the judge’s narrow reading of the statute would solve some of its many constitutional flaws, our clients and other activists have no guarantee that prosecutors, or even other judges, will agree. They will continue to be chilled from speaking out on important issues of public concern until this law is struck down.”
According to attorneys, the language of the AETA is so overbroad that it criminalizes protected First Amendment speech. The law punishes anyone found to have caused the loss of property or profits to a business or other institution that uses or sells animals or animal products or to “a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise.” Furthermore, according to Meeropol, key terms in the statute, including the definition of an “animal enterprise,” are unconstitutionally vague. The plaintiffs, who have long histories of participating in peaceful protests and animal rights advocacy, say that fear of prosecution as terrorists has led them to limit or even cease their lawful advocacy.
“Since the passage of the AETA, I no longer feel free to speak my mind on the issues closest to my heart out of fear that my advocacy could be prosecuted as terrorism,” said plaintiff Sarahjane Blum. “How can I continue my activism if I cannot even challenge the constitutionality of the law that is chilling my speech?”
Groups including the Fur Commission USA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and several pharmaceutical companies lobbied for the law. Critics argue it punishes peaceful protests and turns non-violent civil disobedience into “terrorism.” Moreover, though it targets animal rights activists specifically, the AETA is written so broadly, they say, it could turn a successful labor protest at Wal-Mart, which sells animal products, into an act of domestic terrorism. Non-violent protesters charged under the law face up to twenty years in prison, depending on the amount of profit loss that results from their actions.
In the first use of the AETA, in 2009, four activists were indicted and arrested in California by the Joint Terrorism Task Force for protesting, writing on sidewalks with chalk, chanting, leafleting, and using the Internet to find information on animal researchers. They each faced ten years in prison. A federal judge dismissed that case in 2010.
The AETA amended the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), which punished causing a “physical disruption” to an animal enterprise. In 2006, six activists were convicted in New Jersey for conspiring to violate the AEPA, and served between one and six years in prison for publishing a website that advocated and reported on protest activity against an animal testing lab, its business affiliates, and their employees. The activists were not accused of injuring anyone or vandalizing any property. One of the defendants in that case, Lauren Gazzola, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the AETA.
The Center for Constitutional Rights provided amicus support in the New Jersey AEPA case, and was co-counsel in the California AETA case.
Blum v. Holder, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Alexander Reinert, an associate professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, along with David Milton and Howard Friedman of the Law Offices of Howard Friedman PC, are co-counsel on the case.