Boston, MA – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights appealed the dismissal of a federal lawsuit challenging the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) as a violation of the First Amendment. The case, Blum v. Holder, was filed on behalf of five long-time animal rights activists who allege that the 2006 law violates their right to free speech. In March, Judge Joseph L. Tauro of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, ruled that the activists did not have standing to bring the suit, without addressing 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 property destruction and threats, despite the law’s broad prohibition on causing an animal enterprise any loss of property, including profits.
“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.”
Groups including the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, the Fur Commission USA, and several pharmaceutical companies lobbied for the AETA. The law punishes anyone found to have caused loss or damage 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.” Attorneys say the provisions of the law are so overbroad as to criminalize First Amendment-protected speech. The appeal also challenges the AETA as unconstitutionally vague and discriminatory against animal rights activists. The plaintiffs say that fear of prosecution has led them to limit or even cease their lawful advocacy.
“In dismissing the case, the Judge said that I had not ‘alleged any specific, actual harm suffered.’ But I have been deeply harmed,” said lead plaintiff Sarahjane Blum. “Since the passage of the AETA, I have limited my activism out of fear that I could be prosecuted as a terrorist. If this law does nothing other than criminalize activity that is already illegal, why does it exist at all? I can only conclude that it reaches beyond illegal activity to criminalize my efforts to hurt the bottom lines of businesses that use animals.”
Non-violent protesters charged under the AETA face up to twenty years in prison, depending on the amount of profit loss that results from their actions. Moreover, though the law targets animal rights activists specifically, it is written so broadly, according to attorneys, that it could turn a successful labor protest at Wal-Mart, which sells animal products, into an act of domestic terrorism.
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.