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Activists Convicted Of Terrorism Renew Challenge To Animal Enterprise Law

Animal rights activists, who conditionally pled guilty to conspiring to violate the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, have appealed a federal district court’s ruling in their case and renewed their challenge against the law’s constitutionality.

Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang were indicted in 2014 after they released about 2,000 minks from cages, “destroyed the minks’ breeding cards (necessary for their sale to a furrier), poured caustic substances over two farm vehicles, and spray painted the words ‘Liberation is Love’ on a barn,” according to the appeal [PDF].

This action occurred on the way to a fox farm in Illinois, which they planned to damage. But the two activists were arrested by local police, charged with possession of burglary tools by the state of Illinois, and sentenced to 30 months in prison.

The two activists admitted in their conditional pleas that they caused anywhere from $120,000 to $200,000 worth of damage. This includes the cost of replacing minks and the profits the farm lost by not having minks to sell at “fair value.”

For the AETA conspiracy charge, Johnson was sentenced to 36 months in prison. Lang was sentenced to three months.

Lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the People’s Law Office, who represent Johnson, and a federal defender, who represents Lang, allege AETA is “substantially overbroad” and violates the First Amendment. They also argue the law “outlaws all interstate protest and advocacy against businesses that use animal products” and should be “void for vagueness.” It could be used against activists simply for engaging in nonviolent boycotts, which resulted in “economic damage.”

“The immense breadth of its prohibition invites, and has actually resulted, in arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement,” attorneys assert. “While thousands must violate their prohibition every year, only animal rights activists have ever been charged with violating the law.”

The appeal further maintains the terrorism law violates due process because “nonviolent damage to property cannot rationally be punished as animal enterprise terrorism.” Defendants have an interest in not being labeled “terrorists,” as this impacts conditions of confinement in prison.

“The AETA’s terrorism label matters: it carries significant stigma, and renders appellants eligible for placement in a Communication Management Unit,” the appeal declares. “Attaching this stigmatizing label to a law that primarily prohibits damage to property, and has never once been used to prosecute violence, is not rational. Nonviolent property damage is not terrorism.”

From prison, Johnson declared, “Aescheleman Fur Farm has been exposed as a site of unspeakable violence. Foxes on the farm went mad as they witnessed fellow foxes being anally electrocuted for their pelts. For his acts, Daniel Aeschelman was fined $300 and went on with his business. For my peaceful effort to free those and other fur industry victims, I was sentenced to three years in federal prison. This is what passes for justice under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”

“The AETA singles out activists, who oppose violence against animals for special punishment,” stated Center for Constitutional Rights senior staff attorney Rachel Meeropol, who is arguing the case. “Those who damage property at non-animal enterprises have committed a property crime, while under this law those who damage animal industries have committed a federal crime of terrorism.”

“Designating people who release animals – in order to save them from being killed and made into coats – as terrorists is not only preposterous, it is unconstitutional,” Meeropol added.

The appeal specifically asserts “animal rights activists commonly seek to publicize the horrific treatment of animals at certain businesses and organize community campaigns in opposition to such treatment.”

Since the businesses targeted are “animal enterprises,” it can easily be argued “publicity and community organizing inevitably involves the use of a facility of interstate commerce.” Activists also have the intent to “damage” or interfere with the operations of a corporation. Their actions are launched to make the corporation suffer economically, force a change in practices, or make them cease their business. So, the attorney contend the terrorism law can unconstitutionally be used to criminalize such activism.

The appeal includes another example: the documentary, “Blackfish,” which exposed cruel and inhumane practices against killer whales at SeaWorld.

“Negative publicity from the film led to the company losing $925 million in market capitalization and a subsequent securities class action for SeaWorld’s failure to disclose potential liability related to the company’s treatment of killer whales and the resultant negative publicity from the documentary,” according to the appeal. “The company also announced a multi-million dollar expansion of its orca tanks in response to the negative publicity generated by the film.”

“The film meets all of the requirements of an AETA violation. SeaWorld, which uses captive animals for entertainment, is undoubtedly an animal enterprise. The filmmakers’ admitted ‘purpose’ was to convince people to avoid patronizing SeaWorld’s parks and ultimately affect their bottom line. And the resultant damage caused SeaWorld more than a billion dollars in lost profits, loss of market capitalization, and money spent to construct its planned tank expansions. That the government is unlikely to bring a controversial prosecution against documentary filmmakers does nothing to save the statute’s overbreadth.”

In regards to the issue of being labeled a terrorist, the lawyers insist the activists have the “right not to have a misleading label attached to one’s serious crime.” They liken what the activists face to individuals placed on sex offender registries, when their crimes have no “sexual component” to them.

The impact of the terrorism label is that their cases are overseen by counterterrorism unit employees within the Bureau of Prisons. The defendants are potentially placed in Communication Management Units. (Note: The Center for Constitutional Rights has challenged these experimental prison units, which impose harsh restrictions on inmates’ contact with family and have been used in a retaliatory manner by the Bureau of Prisons.)

The Center for Constitutional Rights has previously pursued a separate lawsuit against the constitutionality of the terrorism law used against animal rights activists. A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit in 2013, and CCR appealed in 2014.

One of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, journalist Ryan Shapiro, who has a history as an animal rights activist, previously wrote for Truthout, “In 2006, under heavy lobbying from the pharmaceutical, animal agriculture and fur industries, Congress passed [AETA].”

“The AETA is designer legislation that targets political dissent directed at any business that uses or sells animals or animal products – or any company ‘connected to’ such ‘animal enterprises.’ Simply hurting the profits of these businesses—by, for example, producing and screening a film that inspires people to boycott foie gras or other animal products—qualifies as a terrorist offense. Indeed, a distressingly high number of my closest friends have been convicted as terrorists for engaging in free speech and civil disobedience advocacy on behalf of animals.”

The terrorism law is designed to protect corporations when systematic animal rights abuses are exposed, and to empower the state to lock away activists who disrupt their business, whether it be through property damage or some other nonviolent direct action, which does not involve any property damage at all.

Anohni (Photo by Juan Bendana)
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."