Animal Rights Activism—Terrorism or Constitutional Right?

Activists push back on a law that has stymied their efforts to tell the public about animal abuse.

stop McCruelty, PETA, man dressed as chicken
Protesting against a business could land animal activists in jail. (david_shankbone/Creative Commons)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Should picketing a restaurant that serves foie gras be considered a terrorist act?  Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), passed in 2006, it might be. That's why five activists, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, have filed a lawsuit to fight the law they claim violates their rights to constitutionally protected actions.

Under the AETA, animal activism that is committed "for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise" or that "causes the loss of any real or personal property" could constitute terrorism charges. The law also prohibits acts which could do "economic damage" to an animal enterprise—think McDonald's' recent snub toward its egg supplier after videos of animal cruelty surfaced.

Defenders of the law (including fur farmers and pharmaceutical companies that test products on animals) say that the law is intended to ward off animal rights extremism, such as property destruction and employee intimidation. But critics say that the vagueness of the law's language leaves room for interpretation that could be detrimental to animal rights efforts that are not extreme.

Rachel Meeropol, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, tells Mother Jones that such a broad definition of "animal enterprise" could include "any institution that has a cafeteria selling meat or cheese products." That's problematic, she says, because it shuts down animal activists' purpose on a basic level.

"The whole point of many protests is to cause a business to lose profits, to convince the public that a certain company doesn't deserve to be patronized," she says.

The law has effectively silenced some activists who fear that their actions won't be protected by law. Sarahjane Blum, the cofounder of the anti-foie-gras group Gourmet Cruelty and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, says she feels "censored" and is no longer comfortable continuing her work documenting animal cruelty on geese and ducks.

And indeed, concern among activists is warranted. In 2004, Lauren Gazzola—also a plaintiff in the recent lawsuit—was convicted and imprisoned under a previous, weaker version of the law (the Animal Enterprise Protection Act) in 2004. According to Mother Jones, Gazzola served three years in a federal correctional institution, then spent five months under supervision at a halfway house for blowing the lid off animal cruelty that was taking place at U.K.-based animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. She's still under federal probation and will lose part of her salary for the next 20 years to a restitution repayment plan that compensates the companies she affected.

Matthew McDermott at Treehugger also laments the broadness of the law, pointing out that activism by organizations like his employer could be prosecuted under AETA. "The entire conference to End Factory Farming back in October, which TreeHugger was a media sponsor of, could be construed as advocating terrorism under the standard of business disruption," he says. 

But whether you're an animal rights activist or not, says Will Potter, independent journalist and founder of the blog Green is the New Red, the law should matter to you. "...if this type of legislation is not overturned, it will set a precedent for corporations to use this model against Occupy Wall Street and anyone else who threaten [sic] business as usual," he says.

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