In 2013, Californians Tyler Lang and Kevin Johnson freed 2,000 minks and foxes, and left the words “Liberation in Love” spray-painted on a barn at a fur factory in Morris, Ill., roughly 60 miles from Chicago.
They were prosecuted for their actions under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, or AETA, a statute that has raised controversy since its passage in 2006.
Lang and Johnson admitted to causing between $120,000 and $200,000 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 challenged his indictment under AETA in federal court, claiming that the anti-terrorism statute unfairly targets animal-rights activists.
Under the law, 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 Johnson’s suit. He is represented by Rachel Meeropol with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“While it may be true that the people most often prosecuted under AETA are animal rights activists, this does not mean the law is vague and is being enforced in a discriminatory manner,” Judge Ann Claire Williams said, writing for the three-judge panel. “Instead, it may simply mean that animal rights activists are the persons who are most often violating the law.”
The Chicago-based appeals court specifically rejected Johnson’s claims that the law criminalizes all animal-rights activism that economically damages a business. For example, he argued that even a film like “Blackfish” – which caused SeaWorld significant negative publicity and market-capitalization losses – could violate AETA.
“The context of the statute dictates that ‘personal property’ excludes solely intangible items and therefore speech or expressive conduct, such as protests or documentaries, which cause damage only to an animal enterprise’s profits is not criminalized by AETA,” Williams said.
She said there is no doubt that the defendants’ release of the minks and destruction of fur farm equipment was covered under the Act, and found no special liberty interest implicated by their conviction as “terrorists.” Lang and Johnson are not required to register as “terrorists” nor are they subject to any terrorism sentencing enhancement.
“Given the serious harms the statute was trying to address, including arson, bombing, and death threats, it was in no way arbitrary or unreasonable for Congress to include the word ‘terrorism’ in the non‐codified title of AETA,” Williams said.
Judges Joel Flaum and Michael Kanne joined Williams on the three-judge panel.