By: Susan Bird
November 13, 2017
Follow Susan at @ItsSusanBird
It’s perfectly fine to convict non-violent animal activists under a law intended for “terrorists,” — at least, according to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the convictions of two men who freed minks from a fur farm.
Tyler Lang and Kevin Johnson set out one night in August 2013 to do something many of us would view as a good deed — or at least a kind one. They wanted to free thousands of minks held captive on a fur farm in Morris, Illinois. And they actually succeeded.
They released approximately 2,000 minks from their cages, destroyed the minks’ breeding cards — required for sale to furriers — poured caustic substances over two farm vehicles and spray-painted “Liberation is Love” on the wall of a barn. All told, they caused between $120,000 and $200,000 worth of damage.
Admittedly, these actions included a few crimes and went further than just letting the animals loose.
Lang and Johnson were convicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a 2006 federal law that many call “Green Scare” legislation. It’s supposedly aimed at dark and dangerous underground activist crimes like arson and bombing, but is that how it’s now being used?
The Center for Constitutional Rights says of the AET
The AETA targets animal riists, criminalizing First Amendment protected speech and advocacy, including protests, boycotts, picketing, and whistleblowing. Yet, while the law is aimed at stifling animal rights activism, its language is so broad and vague it could be used to prosecute labor activists who organize a successful boycott of Wal-Mart or union members who picket a university cafeteria, because both sell animal products.
Indeed, the law is quite broad. It defines “economic damage” as “the loss of profits, or increased costs, including losses and increased costs resulting from threats, acts or vandalism, property damage, trespass, harassment, or intimidation taken against a person or entity on account of that person’s or entity’s connection to, relationship with, or transactions with the animal enterprise,” but “does not include any lawful economic disruption (including a lawful boycott) that results from lawful public, governmental, or business reaction to the disclosure of information about an animal enterprise.”
What exactly is “intimidation”? What are “threats”? These are words easily bandied about and could be conveniently used by means of discriminatory enforcement to thwart the otherwise legal actions of animal protestors and activists.
That’s not to say that what Lang and Johnson did was legal. It was, among other things, trespass and vandalism — and I’m sure they knew it — but there are already laws on the books to deal with such crimes.
The problem with AETA is pigeonholing this type of crime as “terrorism.” We all live in this dangerous world. Most of us know terrorism when we see it.
Freeing innocent animals from a fur farm while engaging in a bit of property damage isn’t what comes to mind. Sure, it’s illegal activity, and so is stealing eggs from Kroger or a truckload of frozen hamburgers from your neighborhood Burger King.
Those latter crimes don’t merit a prosecution under AETA, though arguably they could if an animal activist committed them. They represent, after all, “the loss of profits…resulting from…trespass… taken against an entity…” See how the law could be manipulated to make any animal activist-related crime a form of terrorism? That’s not how laws are supposed to work.
Animal rights activists commonly seek to publicize the horrific treatment of animals at certain businesses and organize community campaigns in opposition to such treatment. 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.
Why do authorities pursue animal activists under AETA? That’s easy. Big businesses like the American Meat Institute, National Milk Producers Federation and the Fur Commission USA pushed hard to pass the legislation. They fear the results that animal activists can achieve, and they had to do something about it.
“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,” CCR’s Rachel Meeropol told Courthouse News. “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.”
The 7th Circuit opinion upheld the conviction and, among other things, determined that the defendants aren’t suffering from denial of a substantive due process right to not be tried for a non-violent crime under a law with the word “terrorism” in the title. According to the court, the statute’s official title is “Force, violence, and threats involving animal enterprises,” not the colloquial “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”
Oh, I guess Lang and Johnson should feel better about that? It’s all good, said the court, because Lang and Johnson won’t be required to register as “terrorists” or be subject to any sentence enhancement based on having committed a terrorist act.
Will there be a further appeal? That remains to be seen, but we can hope CCR, Lang and Johnson will try. It’s ridiculous for a court to assert that it hasn’t forever branded these two young men as “terrorists.” They certainly have. It’s a conviction under a law that everyone calls the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.
AETA is meant to instill fear in animal activists everywhere. And after this case, it will continue to do so. Many activists aren’t afraid to risk jail for their cause, but being unofficially branded a terrorist will be a bridge too far for some. I don’t blame them a bit for that fear.
Photo Credit: Dzivnieku briviba/Flickr
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