What’s wrong with the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act?

By Peter Muller

On November 13th, twelve hardy souls were trudging through the House Office buildings in Washington DC. We were members of the Equal Justice Alliance (EJA) joined by some volunteers. Our mission was to persuade the members of the House of Representatives to vote against the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). The vote was scheduled to take place that evening at 6:30pm.

The measure had passed the Senate before the national general election (which took place on November 7, 2006) by “unanimous consent.” The bill had been put on a special fast-track calendar, and unless a senator (even just one) asked that it be taken off that calendar and properly debated, it passed automatically after its due date. In an election year, and just prior to the election, no senator had the courage to appear to oppose a bill that had the word “terrorism” in it – so it passed “by unanimous consent.”
In the House, the bill had also been entered on the suspension (fast-track) calendar, which is normally reserved for non-controversial bills (such as congratulating Jeff Dahmer for making Eagle Scout in Parsippany, NJ). Bills on the suspension calendar are voted up or down by the members present on the floor with very limited debate and no amendments or hearings allowed. If two-thirds of the members present vote for it, it passes – otherwise it fails. Our goal was to get enough members to the floor by 6:30 p.m. so that over one-third of those present would vote against it.

Around 3:00 p.m., I got a call on my cell phone that the schedule had been changed and AETA was on the House Floor that very second! I rushed from the House office building over to the Capitol. By the time I got across the street and past four security check points AETA had passed. Dennis Kucinich from Ohio was the only House member who had noticed the change in schedule and made it to the floor. He was the only one to speak out and vote against it. There were five other representatives on the floor and so the Bill’s sponsor (Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin) and four of his cronies had the required two-thirds (four out of six) to pass AETA. Five out of 435 members of the House of Representatives were able to pass this ACT by an underhanded maneuver – but consistent with the House rules. [Hopefully, we can make this work for us one day.]

On November 27, 2006, George W. Bush signed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) into law.

Within the Animal Protective community a wide range of views has been heard regarding the impact of AETA on their current and contemplated activities.

At one extreme there are organizations that do not feel it’s threatening to their activities as they “operate within the law.” On the other, there are animal protective organizations who feel that AETA must not be allowed to stand. It was for that purpose that the Equal Justice Alliance (EJA) was formed. The EJA is spearheaded by FARM, The League of Humane Voters, Kinship Circle, Animal’s Voice, and supported by many others. The sole purpose of the Equal Justice Alliance (EJA)is to nullify AETA through the courts and/or through legislation. More information about EJA can be found on http://noaeta.com EJA’s website.

Some of the largest animal protective organizations are someplace in the middle; they don’t feel that AETA needs to be abolished – but they agree that the language of it should be modified to assure that legitimate activism guaranteed under the first amendment (such a protests, calling for boycotts and demonstrations), is not prohibited by this act.

So what’s this new law all about and should Animal Rights activists be concerned regarding its enforcement?

The heart of the ACT says substantially:

Whoever travels across state lines, or uses mail or any facility of interstate commerce — for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise; and in connection with such purpose, intentionally damages or causes the loss of property, including loss of profits, to an animal enterprise, or any entity having transactions with an animal enterprise; shall be punished as follows:

1) Imprisonment for not more than 10 years, if the offense results in economic damage exceeding $100,000

2) Imprisonment for not more than 20 years, if the offense results in economic damage exceeding $1,000,000.!

What the Act says in essence is that if you or your group is contemplating an action, and the following elements are present, you can be prosecuted under AETA:

1) Interstate communication is involved; that element is easy to meet; if you send an announcement of your demo or boycott to an AR-listserv, or call friends in neighboring states, you qualify.

2) You intend to cause economic damage to your target company. That’s what boycotts, advertisements, and demonstrations are all about: after all, we are trying to persuade potential customers to go elsewhere until the abusive practiced by the target company is remedied.

3) The target is an animal enterprise. That’s easy also: AETA’s definition says: the term ‘animal enterprise’ means a commercial or academic enterprise that uses or sells animals or animal products for profit, food or fiber production, agriculture, education, research, or testing. Most restaurants, grocery stores, department stores – just about all retail stores are included.

But wait: The act has a “weasel clause” that says: Nothing in this section shall be construed— to prohibit any expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment to the Constitution; So activities permitted by the First amendment are excluded from enforcement under AETA – now that’s comforting, right? It’s good to know that AETA did not repeal the First Amendment. However, suppose some behaviors occur in the course of your action that are not specifically permitted under the First amendment such as civil disobedience?

Many animal rights activists, and other social justice activists may on occasion have to resort to civil disobedience to call attention to the wrongdoing which they are attempting to correct. Sometimes an activist just has to say, “No, I will not move to the back of the bus.” Or “No I will not move my demonstration around the corner behind the gas-station; I have a perfect right to be here.”

Civil disobedience is a perfectly respectable tool in a social justice advocate’s tool-bag, and it is in keeping with the best of American traditions and culture. The usual misdemeanor charges that come out of an act of civil disobedience, such as: trespassing, disorderly conduct, failure to obey a lawful order of a police officer, conspiracy to litter, etc. are easily disposed of in trial court with dismissal or a small fine.

But under AETA the same civil disobedience deed can now get the activist ten or twenty years under the Federal AETA and up to 40 years under some of the state American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) cognates (such as in Pennsylvania).

Because of the totally disproportionate penalties imposed by AETA for minor misdemeanor infractions of laws in conjunction with activities directed at animal enterprises that succeed in reducing their profits (such as boycotts), AETA’s language cannot be tweaked to accommodate civil disobedience.

AETA cannot include a paragraph that explicitly allows civil disobedience since a law that permits the breaking of laws is as absurd as AETA itself.

If AETA were to include a paragraph that stipulates that the penalties imposed under AETA cannot exceed the penalties normally imposed for such offenses, AETA would be stripped of any substantive content.

If we believe that civil disobedience is a valid tool of social justice advocates, and is consistent with the best values expressed in American tradition and culture – then AETA in its entirety must go; it cannot be tweaked to accommodate civil disobedience.

Recently, I spoke at a Syracuse University conference on Animal Rights and Environment. An activist in the audience questioned whether we were unnecessarily scaring ourselves by calling attention to AETA. At that point an experienced civil rights attorney in the audience validated our concerns by saying, “If you’re not scared, you just don’t understand the situation!”

PETER MULLER is Chair, Equal Justice Alliance www.noaeta.com; VP of C.A.S.H. – Committee to Abolish Sport Hunting www.all-creatures.org/cash; Principal of LOHV-League of Humane Voters www.humanevoters.org


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