MANHATTAN (CN) - Prosecutors are not overreaching in using an anti-terrorism statute against young activists accused of releasing thousands of minks from an Illinois fur factory, a federal judge ruled.
California men Tyler Lang and Kevin Johnson allegedly freed 2,000 minks and left the words "Liberation in Love" spray-painted on a barn of a farm in Morris, Ill., roughly 60 miles from Chicago, on Aug. 14, 2013.
Their indictment nearly a year later charged them under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), a statute that has raised controversy since its passage in 2006.
Environmental groups have warned that the law could be used to label various types of activism as "terrorism," even if the protesters do not use violence or intimidation to spread their message.
Their lawyers claimed in a motion to dismiss that the law "prohibits almost all effective advocacy by animal rights activists."
"For example, animal rights activists commonly seek to publicize the horrific treatment of animals at certain businesses and organize community campaigns in opposition to such treatment," lawyer Rachel Meeropol wrote in her brief. "Such businesses are certainly 'animal enterprises.' Publicizing and community organizing inevitably involves the use of a facility of interstate commerce; and activists have the intent of 'damaging' or interfering with corporations' operations - the purpose of their advocacy is to cause businesses to suffer economically and be forced either to change their practices or to cease doing business entirely because of public outrage."
Meeropol argued that this could criminalize the filmmakers behind "Blackfish," a documentary that caused SeaWorld to lose $925 million in market capitalization by exposing its treatment of captive killer whales.
U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve noted Thursday that the statute's roots forbid prosecution against animal-rights activists based on speech alone.
The law "strikes a balance between protecting the First Amendment rights of activists and punishing the criminal conduct of extremists who target animal enterprises," the 19-page opinion states.
Quoting extensively from the congressional record, St. Eve pointed to assurances Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., gave their constituents about the statute's supposedly limited reach.
"It goes without saying that First Amendment freedoms of expression cannot be defeated by statute," Scott said. "However, to reassure anyone concerned with the intent of this legislation, we have added in the bill assurances that it is not intended as a restraint on freedoms of expression such as lawful boycotting, picketing or otherwise engaging in lawful advocacy for animals."
Feinstein said at the time of its passage that she recognized that "peaceful picketing and public demonstrations" deserved protection under "sacred right to free expression."
"This law effectively protects the actions of the law-abiding protestor while carefully distinguishing the criminal activity of extremists," she added.
Lang and Johnson also argued that the AETA unfairly tags them as alleged terrorists for nonviolent conduct.
Those prosecuted under the statute have reported placement in so-called "Communication Management Units" behind bars, heightened restrictions commonly reserved for suspected or convicted terrorists.
But St. Eve said that it was "not clear" the ATEA "labels" Lang and Johnson as terrorists.
"The text of the AETA contains no reference to 'terrorism,' the government need not prove that defendants committed a crime of 'terror' to convict them, and an AETA conviction would not make defendants eligible for the terrorism sentencing enhancement," her opinion states.
Meeropol, who works for the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in an email she is "very disappointed in the court's ruling."
"If animal rights activists could count on the AETA only be used to prosecute physical damage to tangible property, as this judge interprets the statute, that would be comforting," Meeropol wrote. "But the plain language of the law suggests that it could be used much more broadly, to punish peaceful protest that impacts a corporation's bottom line. Similarly, if the defendants in this case stood accused of terrorizing or intimidating the public, prosecuting them as terrorists might make more sense; but what these activists are actually accused of is releasing animals destined to become fur coats.
"Saving the wrong lives is not terrorism," she added.
A longtime opponent of the AETA, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit by Sarahjane Blum and other activists challenging the constitutionality of the statute.
It lost that battle too in 2013 for lack of standing.
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