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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Terror Fears of Animal Rights Group Tossed

(CN) - Five animal rights activists who say they could be prosecuted as terrorists under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act failed to show chilled speech, a federal judge ruled.

For a total of more than 80 years, Sarahjane Blum, Ryan Shapiro, Lana Lehr, Lauren Gazzola and Iver Robert Johnson III have fought to improve conditions for rabbits, ducks and geese, and dolphins, and other cetaceans. They have done so with public protests, letter-writing campaigns, lawful picketing and nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.

Blum and Shapiro co-founded GourmetCruelty.com, a grassroots coalition whose nationwide investigation culminated in the documentary, "Delicacy of Despair: Behind the Closed Doors of the Foie Gras Industry;" the rescue and rehabilitation of force-fed farm animals, and the activists' 2004 arrest for trespassing.

That same year, Gazzola was arrested and convicted under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 for working with the U.S. branch of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. She received a 52-month prison sentence, and is currently on probation.

Lehr, who has never engaged in civil disobedience or been arrested, participated in anti-fur protests and founded the public charity RabbitWise.

They allegedly grew concerned in 2006 when Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), to criminalize violence against animal enterprises and their associates, including damage to "personal property."

Blum and the others claimed to have backed off from activism for fear of prosecution and sentencing as terrorists.

They challenged the constitutionality of AETA, arguing that the "overly broad" and "impermissibly vague" act discriminates on the basis of content and viewpoint, in violation of the First and Fifth Amendments.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder moved to dismiss the federal complaint in Boston for lack of standing and failure to state a claim.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro agreed that the activists lack Article III standing.

"Plaintiffs have not alleged an intention to engage in any activity prohibited by the AETA," Tauro wrote. "The conduct they seek to participate in - lawful and peaceful advocacy - is very different: documenting factory conditions with permission, organizing lawful public protests and letter-writing campaigns, speaking at public events, and disseminating literature and other educational materials. None of plaintiffs' proposed activities fall within the statutory purview of intentionally damaging or causing loss of real or personal property or intentionally placing a person in reasonable fear of death or serious injury."

The court rejected the activists' argument that "personal property" includes loss of profits.

"The court must read the term "personal property" in light of the words around it, specifically 'animals or records' and 'real property,'" Tauro wrote. "In this context, personal property cannot reasonably be read to include an intangible such as lost profits."

Also lacking were claims of an "objectively reasonable chill" to the rights of activists, the 18-page ruling states.

"The court does not doubt plaintiffs' deeply held commitment to animal welfare or the sincerity of their personal fear of prosecution under the AETA," Tauro wrote. "Nevertheless, plaintiffs have not alleged an intention to engage in any activity 'that could reasonably be construed' to fall within the statute."

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