February 3, Boston – Today, attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the First Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) as a violation of the First Amendment. Enacted in 2006, the AETA punishes anyone found to have caused the loss of property or profits to a business or other institution that uses or sells animals or animalproducts, or to “a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with ananimal enterprise.” Critics argue that the law is so broad that it punishes peaceful protests like boycotts and picketing that cause businesses to lose profits and turns non-violent civil disobedience into “terrorism.” CCR filed the first civil challenge to the AETA, Blum v. Holder, in 2011.
“Like other laws sweeping the country – most prominently, state-level ag-gag legislation – the AETA is aimed not at illegal activity, for which ample criminal statutes already exist, but at silencing activists,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol. “This law takes the whistleblowing, boycotts, and peaceful protests that we celebrate from numerous social movements throughout our history and turns them into terrorist offenses.”
Blum was filed on behalf of five animal rights activists with long histories of participating in peaceful protests and advocacy efforts who have limited or even ceased their lawful advocacy out of fear of being prosecuted as terrorists. One of the plaintiffs in Blum, Lauren Gazzola, was convicted under the previous version of the law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, and served 40 months in federal prison for her role in publishing a website that advocated and reported on protest activity against ananimal testing lab in New Jersey. CCR filed an amicus brief in Ms. Gazzola’s criminal case.
“I spent years investigating the brutality that animals endure in agriculture and educating the public about it,” said lead plaintiff Sarahjane Blum. “But after watching some of my closest friends hauled off to prison for engaging in free speech and lawful protests, I have limited my activism out of fear that I could be next. If this law does nothing other than criminalize activity that is already illegal, why does it exist at all?”
District Judge Joseph L. Tauro dismissed the case in March, ruling that the activists did not have standing to bring the suit. He did not address the central First Amendment questions raised in the case. Today’s appeal argues that the Judge incorrectly dismissed the case by misinterpreting the AETA as criminalizing only physical destruction of tangible property and threats, despite the law’s broad prohibition.
In the first use of the AETA in 2009, four activists were indicted and arrested in California by the JointTerrorism 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. CCR was co-counsel in the California AETA case.
Blum v. Holder was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Professor Alexander Reinert, of 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.