April 22, 2014, Boston – Last night, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the full First Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider a ruling by a three-judge appellate panel dismissing CCR’s First Amendment challenge to the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). 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 animal products, or to “a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise.” The law makes no distinction between loss caused by criminal acts and loss caused by boycotts and other constitutionally-protected activity. In its ruling, the panel said that the plaintiffs could not challenge the AETA because the statute states that it does not punish “any expressive conduct.”
“The plain language of the AETA punishes purposefully causing an animal enterprise to lose profit, regardless of whether the loss is due to a boycott, civil disobedience, property destruction, or freeing animals,” said CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol. “Congress can’t cure such a fundamental encroachment on the First Amendment by adding a sentence to the statute saying that it doesn’t violate the First Amendment.”
In its ruling, the appellate panel also demanded an unprecedented threshold of injury before allowing plaintiffs to sue. The court held that the plaintiffs could not challenge the constitutionality of the AETA because their prosecution as Animal Enterprise Terrorists was not “certainly impending.” But this holding contradicts decades of Supreme Court precedent allowing plaintiffs to challenge a law when their speech is chilled based on an objectively reasonable interpretation of the statute, even if there is no imminent threat of prosecution.
According to attorneys, the activists’ fears are even more reasonable given that the AETA is part of a broader crackdown on animal rights activists, which also includes so-called “ag-gag” legislation punishing undercover investigations in animal agriculture.
“As more and more undercover videos have exposed the horrific violence inherent in animal agriculture, the industry has used its immense political power to push for and enact laws to silence whistleblowers,” said lead plaintiff Sarahjane Blum. “I am not at all confident that the industry will refrain from using that same lobbying influence to push for prosecutions against activists who affect their bottom line. As long as the AETA exists, the threat of prosecution is real and chilling.”
Blum v. Holder 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. 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. One of the plaintiffs in Blum, Lauren Gazzola, was convicted under the previous version of the law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), and served 40 months in federal prison for her role in publishing a website that advocated and reported on protest activity against an animal testing lab in New Jersey.
Although it targets animal rights activists specifically, the AETA is written so expansively it could turn a successful labor protest at Wal-Mart into an act of domestic terrorism. Non-violent violators face up to twenty years in prison, depending on the amount of profit loss that results. Groups including the Fur Commission USA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and several pharmaceutical companies lobbied for the law.
The Center for Constitutional Rights provided amicus support in Plaintiff Gazzola’s AEPA case and was co-counsel in the California AETA case.
Blum was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Alexander Reinert, a 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.