New law targets animal rights activists
One of the final pieces of legislation approved during the second session of the 109th Congress, signed into law by President Bush on Nov. 27, 2006, was the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). Passed unanimously in the Senate, it slipped through the House by a voice vote under suspension of the rules when only six representatives were present.
According to the language of the act, causing any business classified as an “animal enterprise” — including animal factories, fur farms, puppy mills, research labs, zoos, rodeos and circuses — to suffer a profit loss is a crime, punishable by fines and imprisonment, even if the company’s financial decline is caused by legal protests, peaceful demonstrations, consumer boycotts, whistle-blowing or undercover investigations of animal abuse.
According to William Rivas-Rivas, PETA’s major gifts officer, no other industrial sector in U.S. history has ever been given such legal protection against people exercising their First Amendment free-speech rights. “Passage of this act is a great disservice to humans and other animals, and serves only to intimidate those who advocate for more humane treatment of animals. On a personal note, as a former U.S. Naval Officer and Persian Gulf veteran, it offends me to have someone suggest speaking out for animals is terrorism.”
PETA and Rivas-Rivas aren’t the only ones offended by the law. Opposition comes from thousands of constituents and more than 160 groups, including the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, American Civil Liberties Union, League of Humane Voters, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Humane Society of the U.S. (A complete list of all the organizations opposed to AETA is available at www.noaeta.org/opposition.)
Complaints against the bill include its broad reach and its vagueness. Critics allege that AETA threatens legitimate advocacy by using ambiguous terms that can be interpreted to include lawful, peaceful actions. In a letter to Congress, the ACLU wrote, “The AETA criminalizes activities such as demonstrations, leafleting, undercover investigations and boycotts. It will effectively chill and deter Americans from exercising their First Amendment rights to advocate for reforms in the treatment of animals.”
Opponents also believe the legislation threatens First Amendment rights of free speech. By setting a precedent for punishing content-based speech, it creates a slippery slope whereby any unfavorable group can be labeled as terrorists and targeted for punishment.
The legislation also brands civil disobedience as terrorism. Non-violent civil disobedience demonstrations can be deemed illegal and, under AETA, anyone engaging in lawful, peaceful protests — even consumer boycotts — can be targeted as terrorists if they cause at least a $10,000 profit loss for the target of their boycott. The bill also brands animal activists as terrorists. “The language is so broad that it will permit the Justice Department to target, investigate and prosecute peaceful protesters even if there is no harm done to an animal enterprise. Protesting is not a crime. Animal abuse is,” admonishes Erin Edwards, PETA media liaison.
On the whole, critics of AETA believe it detracts from prosecution of real terrorism. Monitoring social activists imposes an unnecessary and misdirected additional burden on law enforcement agencies whose resources are already stretched thin. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) deems the act “misplaced priorities,” criticizing Congress for passing the bill instead of reforms such as the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act.
The HSUS calls AETA “a solution in search of a problem,” noting that under the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act, there have been several successful convictions. HSUS stated, “Law enforcement agencies already have the tools they need to successfully prosecute and convict people who engage in campaigns of harassment and intimidation.”
Dr. Elliot Katz, president of In Defense of Animals, believes the legislation plays on people’s fear of terrorism. “It’s nothing new,” Katz says. “The strategy has always been to marginalize animal activists. An AMA white paper said the best way to marginalize us is to paint us as terrorists.”
Although Katz doesn’t believe it will significantly impact animal welfare organizations that don’t stage many protests or demonstrations, he has expressed willingness to become part of a test case to challenge the law. Hoping to preempt that necessity, other groups are planning a national conference in Los Angeles next summer to promote repeal by convincing Congress the law is unconstitutional and impractical.