You may not have heard of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, because the very first prosecution under the 2006 law is currently underway in San Jose, California. In the case, USA v. Buddenberg, four animal rights activists are accused of chanting, making leaflets and writing with chalk on the sidewalk in front of a senior bio-researcher's house, as well as using the internet to research the company whose actions they planned to protest. Under the AETA, they are charged with acts of animal enterprise terrorism.
The AETA classifies a person who "intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property" or "intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of" death or serious bodily injury as terrorists when they act for the "purpose of damaging or interfering with an animal enterprise." It imposes penalties accordingly. At first blush, this may not sound so bad. But a closer look exposes serious problems: the AETA can be read to reach so many different types of protests and people, and it is written in language so vague, it is impossible for someone to know whether their actions might be covered under the AETA, and thus great swaths of protected speech are in danger of being silenced by the law.
To understand the fundamental threat to free speech, the First Amendment and the right to protest that the AETA poses, it might help to unpack the words "Animal Enterprise," "Terrorism," and "Act."
Under the law, an animal enterprise includes any business that deals in animal research or uses or sells animal products. This could be read as anything from a lab conducting medical research on monkeys to a gas station that sells beef jerky.
Terrorism under this law might be defined as anything from physical harm to a person, the threat of physical harm to a person, physical harm to property, or, most tellingly, a loss of profit -- or any attempt or conspire to interfere or damage an animal enterprise in any way, even if no economic damage actually occurs. To be charged under this federal law, like most federal laws, you have to have crossed state lines, used interstate mail, or used the internet in the commission of the crime. If you and a friend go on the web to research a company whose practices you plan to protest, you may have just become a terrorist.
So, what is an Act? An act is a law passed by Congress and signed by the president, in this case an unconstitutional one. Attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Civil Liberties Defense Center, and co-counsel are mounting a facial challenge in the case-challenging the law itself and demanding it be struck down.
Taken together, you have one of the most extreme pieces of legislation to come out of the last eights years, one that was pushed through Congress by a powerful lobby of corporations and research institutions late one night with a meager number of votes. Across the board, our nation has seen inroads in civil liberties in every area based on manipulated fear of terrorism. It is time to stop twisting the law as though we face new threats that couldn't possibly be handled by our existing system of justice.
When you create something so broad that it could potentially allow workers who Googled WalMart's board of directors, then picketed a store -- which sells milk -- to be charged with terrorism, you have left our democracy and constitutional rights far behind.
To learn more about actions you can take to abolish the AETA, click here
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