Federal Judge Joseph Tauro put yet another dent in our First Amendment rights two weeks ago when he dismissed a suit brought by five animal rights activists. The activists had claimed that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) made them fearful of protesting in public against animal abuse committed by corporations, and therefore, impinged upon their First Amendment rights. The law states that anyone can be prosecuted if their actions cause property loss to an animal-related business or laboratory, or who “intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury through threats, vandalism, harassment or intimidation.” Judge Tauro dismissed the suit and ruled that the actions the protestors had planned were not prohibited by the law, and therefore, they had failed to demonstrate “an objectively reasonable chill on their First Amendment rights.”
First, to disclose my personal connection: the plaintiffs were represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and more particularly by my daughter, Rachel Meeropol, who is a senior staff attorney there.
AETA was passed towards the end of the Bush administration. It is a sweeping federal law that brands as terrorism protests that hurt the finances of corporations that conduct animal research or deal in animal products. This is a terrible law, and can be used to attack a broad range of activists for engaging in non-violent actions that harm corporate profits. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have used this law and “terrorist enhancements” in other legislation as part of on going actions called the “Green Scare” aimed at repressing animal rights and environmental activists. The RFC has provided support for the children of several imprisoned Green Scare defendants.
If one were looking for a silver lining here, one could interpret Judge Tauro’s ruling as gutting much of the force of AETA by narrowly interpreting its expansive language to limit its impact on the First Amendment. However, my daughter pointed out the limitations of this reasoning. “While this judge reads the law narrowly in a way that is more protective of the First Amendment, there is no guarantee that other judges will agree or that prosecutors will be respectful of animal rights advocates’ freedom of expression. In fact, all the evidence we see is to the contrary, given that there’s been a national crackdown on animal rights activists for the last decade or so.”
Rachel and the CCR plan to appeal the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Many within progressive movements have taken little note of this alarming law. Some in my generation don’t have much respect for the politics of animal rights activists, and so remain silent in the face of this escalating attack on First Amendment rights. One friend of mine described animal rights activists as “people who care more about animals than people.”
First, nothing could be further from the truth. Beyond that, this plays into the hands of the agents of repression whose time-worn divide and conquer tactic is to attempt to pick progressive groups off one at a time. AETA presents the same type of danger that the PATRIOT Act and a host of other post-9/11 laws pose to progressive activists of all stripes. We must resist them all with equal force.
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