Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act Endangers First Amendment Rights to Free Speech

Bill defines animal rights activists who threaten corporate profits as “terrorists”

With tensions running high in the post-9/11 world, powerful forces within the U.S. government appear only too eager to exploit the public’s fear of terrorists to squelch dissent and destroy support for progressive social movements that threaten the status quo. In this climate of free-floating dread, multi-billion dollar corporations and their political hirelings have been able to successfully target animal rights “extremists”—and by extension the entire movement—as one of the most dangerous “terrorist” groups in the world.

As evidence of this assertion, take the case of the SHAC 7—a radical group of grassroots animal rights activists who are going to prison, some probably for many years, not because they committed illegal acts, but simply for running a website that encouraged acts of harassment and property destruction to stop well-documented animal abuse routinely taking place in the corporate research laboratories of Huntingdon Life Sciences. According to the FBI, the SHAC 7 is one the greatest domestic terrorist threats facing the U.S. today, perhaps as great a menace to our national security as Al-Qaeda.

The FBI makes this claim despite the fact that not a single person has ever been killed by an animal rights activist, yet Al-Qaeda indiscriminately murdered more than 2,700 human beings in the World Trade Center bombing alone. However, with ominous forebodings of doom hanging like thunderclouds overhead, it’s not surprising that right-wing propagandists have been able to make the “terrorist” label stick to a small group of animal rights activists who were never charged with destroying property or doing anything illegal themselves but simply for vocally supporting those who did. Neither should it come as a shock to find the “terrorist” term now even being applied more frequently to mainstream social change advocates.

Authorities made the SHAC 7 trial into a sort of test case for using the Animal Enterprise Protection Act to prosecute activists who threaten corporate profits. This obscure law, passed in 1992 to little fanfare, severely increased criminal penalties for anyone who “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any property” of a business that uses animals for profit. The first conviction under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act was handed down in 1998 to two activists who liberated mink from a fur farm. It was next used to neutralize the SHAC 7 in one of the most divisive trials in the animal rights movement’s history. The controversy pitted advocates from different ends of the spectrum against their natural allies so that they often wound up fighting each other instead of attacking animal exploiters as a unified force.

Now some lawmakers are trying to broaden the government’s power to target animal rights activists under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act with H.R. 4239, also known as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. This bill seeks to define even non-violent activist tactics such as civil disobedience, whistleblowing and undercover investigations as “terrorism.” If H.R. 4239 becomes law, causing any business classified as an "animal enterprise" (e.g., factory farms, fur farms, vivisection labs, rodeos and circuses) to suffer a profit loss could become a crime punishable by a lengthy prison sentence—even if the company’s financial decline is caused by peaceful protests, consumer boycotts or media campaigns. No other industrial sector in the history of U.S. democracy has ever been afforded such legal protections against citizens exercising their constitutionally-granted First Amendment rights to free speech.

Journalist Will Potter likens what is happening now to another dark period in U.S. history—the McCarthy trials of the mid-20th century. “The word terrorist is becoming a catch-all for the enemy of the hour, much like the word communist was during the Red Scare,” Potter writes. “It didn’t matter if you were a communist, only if you were branded one. The same goes for the T-word.” If activists are convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” for exercising their First Amendment rights, it will have a chilling effect on the entire movement and make animal rights advocates and organizations reluctant to engage in effective actions for which they could face arrest. While economic disruption has proven essential to the success of all progressive social revolutions, including the animal rights movement, it could soon become another civil liberties casualty of the expanding War on Terror.

What You Can Do:

Urge your federal Representative to protect our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech by opposing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Also write and call your Representative personally to have a greater impact. Get contact information for your elected officials

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