Animal-Rights Fight Over Anti-Terror Law Begins

     CHICAGO (CN) — Animal-rights activists asked the Seventh Circuit to deem the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act unconstitutional for designating nonviolent property damage “terrorism,” because two men charged under the law intended only to save animals’ lives.
     Californians Tyler Lang and Kevin Johnson freed 2,000 minks and foxes, and left the words “Liberation in Love” spray-painted on a barn of a fur factory in Morris, Ill., roughly 60 miles from Chicago, on Aug. 14, 2013.
     Last year, a federal judge ruled that the government properly prosecuted Lang and Johnson under an anti-terrorism statute that they said unfairly targets animal-rights activists.
     Their indictment charged them under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), a statute that has raised controversy since its passage in 2006.
     Lang and Johnson admitted to causing between $120,000 and $200,000 worth of damage in physical damage to property, plus the replacement cost of the minks and lost profits.
     Johnson was sentenced to 36 months in prison, while Lang served three months.
     Johnson is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which appealed last year’s adverse ruling.
     In a 115-page brief filed Monday, attorney Rachel Meeropol sought to convince the Seventh Circuit to declare the AETA unconstitutional.
     The law prohibits damaging any property used by an animal enterprise, or any interstate plan undertaken for the purpose of interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.
     “This criminalizes all interstate animal rights advocacy,” Meeropol wrote, and “reach[es] a vast amount of protected speech and expressive conduct.”
     Under the AETA, even an animal-rights protest that causes economic damage to a business — like convincing a consumer to stop purchasing products manufactured by an animal enterprise — is punishable behavior, according to the brief.
     “For example, the recent documentary Blackfish levied sharp criticism at SeaWorld aquatic theme parks for their treatment of captive killer whales. The negative publicity from the film led to the company losing $925 million in market capitalization and a subsequent securities class action for SeaWorld’s failure to disclose potential liability related to the company’s treatment of killer whales and the resultant negative publicity from the documentary,” the brief states. “The company also announced a multi-million dollar expansion of its orca tanks in response to the negative publicity generated by the film. The film meets all of the requirements of an AETA violation.”
     The breadth and scope of the AETA chills speech, Meeropol argues, and leaves animal activists guessing as to what protests may risk a federal terrorism charge.
     Further, the AETA’s definition of an animal enterprise “covers every non-vegan grocery store, corner store, and restaurant in the country, along with most clothing stores,” Meeropol says. “The AETA does not require that the defendant target an enterprise because of its connection to animals. The defendant need only intend to damage the enterprise, whether motivated by an animal rights ideology or the desire to see glass shatter.” (Emphasis in original.)
     The innumerable property crimes that the allegedly vague statue covers allows prosecutors to cherry pick which offenders will be subject to terrorism charges, Lang and Johnson argue.
     Meeropol also said that it is irrational to punish nonviolent property damage as terrorism, and her clients have a liberty interest in avoiding being labeled terrorists when they have committed no violent crime.
     “Designating people who release animals — in order to save them from being killed and made into coats — as terrorists is not only preposterous, it is unconstitutional,” she said in a statement.
     Johnson, in a statement from prison, said the fur farm he targeted “has been exposed as a site of unspeakable violence.”
     “Foxes on the farm went mad as they witnessed fellow foxes being anally electrocuted for their pelts. For his acts, [the owner] was fined $300 and went on with his business,” Johnson said. “For my peaceful effort to free those and other fur industry victims, I was sentenced to three years in federal prison. This is what passes for justice under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”

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