Boston and New York – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) appealed the dismissal by a federal judge of a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) without addressing the central First Amendment question in the case. The Center for Constitutional Rights brought the case on behalf of five long-time animal rights activists who say the 2006 law violates their right to free speech.
Attorneys and activists expressed concern over the direction corporate lobbyists are taking the law, both at the federal level with the AETA and with proliferating state-level “Ag gag” laws.
Said Rachel Meeropol, Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Attorney, “As many states consider AETA-style ‘Ag gag’ laws prohibiting activists from reporting unsafe or illegal conditions at factory farms, it is critical that this unconstitutional federal law be struck down. Activism is not terrorism.”
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The judge in the case, Blum v. Holder, ruled that the men and women suing the government did not have standing to bring the case and therefor the case could not go forward. The judge’s ruling was based on a narrow interpretation of the AETA as criminalizing only property destruction and threats, despite the law’s broad prohibition on causing an animal enterprise any loss of property, which is generally understood to include the loss of profit.
According to attorneys, the language of the AETA is so overbroad that it criminalizes protected First Amendment speech. The law 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.” Furthermore, according to Meeropol, key terms in the statute, including the definition of an “animal enterprise,” are unconstitutionally vague. The plaintiffs, who have long histories of participating in peaceful protests and animal rights advocacy, say that fear of prosecution as terrorists has led them to limit or even cease their lawful advocacy.
Lana Lehr, a plaintiff in the case and a licensed psychotherapist in Bethesda, Maryland who has been seeing patients in private practice for over 20 years, said, “A felony conviction would end my ability to earn a living – I’d lose my license to practice. I can’t afford that risk so I have stopped protesting for fear I’d be arrested and convicted. I have always obeyed the law. I can’t believe that my activism for the humane treatment of animals places me in a terrorist camp.”
Groups including the Fur Commission USA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and several pharmaceutical companies lobbied for the law. Critics argue it punishes peaceful protests and turns non-violent civil disobedience into “terrorism.” Moreover, though it targets animal rights activists specifically, the AETA is written so broadly, they say, it could turn a successful labor protest at Wal-Mart, which sells animal products, into an act of domestic terrorism. Non-violent protesters charged under the law face up to twenty years in prison, depending on the amount of profit loss that results from their actions.
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 Center for Constitutional Rights 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, associate professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, and David Milton and Howard Friedman of the Law Offices of Howard Friedman PC are co-counsel on the case.
For more information on Ag gag laws read a letter signed onto by over 70 organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights.