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Since 2006, aboveground animal activists in the United States have had to worry about a sweeping piece of legislation called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which is intended to suppress speech and advocacy by criminalizing First Amendment-protected activities such as protests, boycotts, picketing and whistleblowing.
Today, animal rights activists who say their freedom of speech has been violated by AETA filed a lawsuit asking the court to strike down the statute as unconstitutional.
Sarahjane Blum, Lauren Gazzola, J Johnson, Lana Lehr and Ryan Shapiro, all of whom have long histories of participation in peaceful protests and animal rights advocacy, say that fear of prosecution as “terrorists” has led them to limit or even cease their lawful advocacy.
“I spent years uncovering conditions on foie gras farms and educating the public about the way ducks and geese are abused,” says lead plaintiff Sarahjane Blum, who co-founded the site www.GourmetCruelty.com with Ryan Shapiro. The two openly rescued animals and created a documentary exposing the horrors of foie gras farms. “Today, due to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act’s unconstitutional assault on free speech, I am afraid to even publicly screen the documentary we produced.”
“As I have done in the past, I would like to document conditions on factory farms and educate the public about this animal cruelty, so that individuals can make informed decisions about whether they want to continue paying people to abuse animals on their behalf,” says Ryan, now a doctoral candidate at MIT. “The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act prevents me from educating the public about what goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms. Affecting the profits of an animal enterprise, even by exposing animal abuse on factory farms, or by encouraging people to become vegan, is now prosecutable as a terrorist offense under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was pushed through Congress by well-funded industry groups that profit from animal exploitation, including the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition, the American Legislative Exchange Council and the deceptively-named Center for Consumer Freedom, with bipartisan support from legislators like Senator Dianne Feinstein and Representative James Sensenbrenner. The new law replaced its predecessor, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), which had become law in 1992. Proponents of the AETA argued that the AEPA did had not provide a sufficient deterrent, and that “animal rights extremists” were using new tactics such as making threats and targeting anyone affiliated with animal enterprises and called for an expansion of the federal law to address such acts. Yet in reality, the language of the AETA covers many First Amendment activities, such as picketing, boycotts and undercover investigations, if they “interfere” with an animal enterprise by causing a loss of profits. So in effect, the AETA silences the peaceful and lawful protest activities of animal and environmental advocates.
Specifically, the AETA creates the terrorist offense of traveling in interstate or foreign commerce, or using the mail or any other facility of interstate commerce, “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise,” when in connection with such purpose, an individual (A) intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property used by an animal enterprise, or by a person or entity with a connection to an animal enterprise; (B) intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury through a course of conduct involving threats, vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment or intimidation; or (C) conspires to do so. (Investigative journalist Will Potter has an excellent analysis of the law on his site.)
The first use of the AETA to prosecute activists came in 2009, when four people in San Jose, Calif., were accused of chanting, making leaflets and writing with chalk on the sidewalk in front of a biomedical researcher’s house, as well as using the Internet to research the company whose actions they planned to protest. Under the AETA, they were charged with acts of animal enterprise terrorism. Last year, the court dismissed the indictment.
“Some of my clients want to engage in simple public protests — perhaps in front of a fur store — to change public opinion about fur,” says staff attorney Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the five activists in today’s lawsuit. “But they feel restricted from engaging in that clearly lawful activity because under the plain language of the law, if that protest is successful in convincing consumers not to shop at that fur store, they could be charged as terrorists.”
Co-plaintiff Lana Lehr, who founded the advocacy group RabbitWise, says the AETA has clearly put a chill on lawful, peaceful protests about the maltreatment of animals. “It has done this by making it legal to charge a lawful protestor with a felony, a fine and possible jail time if an animal enterprise decides that the activities of the protester caused a loss in their profits.” The law, she argues, “is too broad: An ‘animal enterprise’ can include any company that sells an animal product, a 7-Eleven that sells beef jerky, for example. Also, AETA does not spell out exactly what behaviors by the activist are unlawful so they can’t adjust their actions accordingly.”
“Though now a scholar behind a desk,” adds Ryan, “I just as easily could have found myself a supposed terrorist behind bars. Corporate power should not dictate the limits of free speech. It’s time to strike down the undemocratic and un-American Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.”
When animal advocates want to measure how far we’ve come as a movement, I can think of no better barometer than the burgeoning field of animal law, which works to stop animal cruelty and suffering through legislation and litigation. Once considered a niche area of legal practice, animal law has expanded over the last 20 years to become one of the rising stars of jurisprudence. Consider, for example, that 10 years ago students interested in animal law had only a handful of schools to choose from. Today, there are more than 100 animal law classes being taught at colleges throughout the United States and Canada. Some of the biggest news concerning animal cruelty is coming out of the US Supreme Court, which earlier this month heard arguments regarding free speech and animal fighting videos ― it’s the first case involving animal cruelty the high court has considered since 1993, when, by the way, only seven states had felony-level anti-cruelty laws; now 46 states do. Even China, where animal welfare is not given much value (the country is notorious for its widespread and indiscriminate killing of dogs, for example), recently drafted its first law to protect animals from abuse. And of course the high-profile Michael Vick dogfighting case did much to push the importance of animal law into the public discourse.
So it was a genuine privilege for me to speak at the 17th-annual animal law conference at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, last weekend. I was on a panel with Bob Roop of the Humane Society of the United States; Bob spoke about secondary trauma, which he described as the stress caregivers such as shelter workers experience, and I addressed the issue of activist burnout. The session attendees were very engaged in this topic, and it felt good to discuss such an important issue.
The rest of the time I got to take in what was, for the most part, a terrific event: great vegan food, excellent speakers, and a schedule that was extremely well organized. And, of course, you can’t beat Portland, which ranks as one of the best vegan cities anywhere. In keeping with the theme of this year’s sold-out event, “The Links,” the conference explored animal law and its connection to other areas of the law and professional disciplines, philosophies, and social justice movements, including domestic violence, the environment, international trade, religion, and the media.
I found three panel sessions to be particularly interesting. The first was “The People v. Animal Cruelty: Criminal Prosecutions,” led by Scott Heiser, director of the Criminal Justice Program for ALDF, and Heidi Moawad, deputy district attorney for the Multnomah County, Oregon, district attorney’s office. Heiser and Moawad, both highly experienced animal attorneys, offered advice for motivating district attorneys who are reluctant to prosecute animal abusers (e.g., go to the press, use social media), and they emphasized the link between cruelty to animals and other forms of violence. “People who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit a violent crime against humans,” said Heiser. He noted that public opinion is very important to prosecutors, so writing letters to editors applauding their good work on behalf of animals makes a real difference. Moawad, meanwhile, stressed the need for citizens to report cases of animal abuse or neglect. “Get involved,” she said. I appreciated that the panelists offered suggestions that anyone can do.
Next up, animal law experts Katherine Meyer (partner, Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal) and Bruce Wagman (partner, Schiff Hardin LLP) presented a number of “Hot Topics in Animal Law,” including the aforementioned US Supreme Court case, better known as the United States v. Stevens, which will decide whether video depictions of animal cruelty are expressions of free speech and thus protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. An appeals court had ruled that the government did not have a compelling interest in the animal cruelty shown in dogfighting videos produced and narrated by defendant Robert Stevens, and that “Preventing cruelty to animals, although an exceedingly worthy goal, simply does not implicate interests of the same magnitude as protecting children from physical and psychological harm.” Although Meyer feels the Supreme Court is likely to rule that the ban on such videos, as currently written, is unconstitutional, she said, “The good news is they may say the Third Circuit [Court of Appeals] was wrong when they said the government does not have a compelling interest in protecting animals.”
In his segment of the panel session, Wagman said that as a lawyer, he tries to put himself in the animal’s place, asking “What would they want?” He highlighted seven current cutting-edge animal law issues, including species-specific legislation (e.g., dogfighting statutes); exotic animal ownership; horse abandonment, which has gotten worse in this down economy; animal hoarding; shelter practices (no-kill vs. humane euthanasia); understanding the opposition, which tries to marginalize our interests; and farmed animals. Of the latter, Wagman said, “They’re born into misery, they live in misery, and they die in misery. There’s no moment in their lives when they’re not being mistreated in some way.” Bruce closed the session by suggesting a “compassion revolution,” emphasizing that advocates need to keep their eyes on the prize and promote kindness. “It is emotionally crushing to do this work,” he said. “It’s an effort to redeem our species from eternal shame.”
Finally, “Killing with Keystrokes: CITES, African Elephants & Internet Trade” featured Special Agent Ed Newcomer of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Paul Todd of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Not surprisingly, the Internet has helped fuel trafficking in wildlife items, including animal skins, endangered butterflies, elephant tusks, and exotic birds. According to Todd, the US is responsible for two-thirds of the worldwide illegal trade, which represents at least $20 billion a year. Only illegal drugs and weapons are bigger markets, he said. Todd gave a great case study that showed how online auction site eBay has finally banned ivory sales in compliance with the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, an agreement among 172 nations meant to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Elephant parts account for 73 percent of the world’s illegal trade in animals, said Todd, and a whopping 98 percent of that is ivory.
Newcomer, a former state prosecutor, draped several confiscated animal skins across a large table at the front of the room. The skin of a dog imported from China was particularly haunting; two almond-shaped holes where the eyes had been gave the skin an eerie, Halloween mask feel. The skin had been expertly dyed to resemble that of a leopard, and it lay between a genuine leopard skin and a tiger skin. Neatly folded beside the dog skin was a large swath of elephant hide, which was passed around the room. It felt surprisingly soft — though I’ve never touched an elephant ― and Newcomer explained the skin is often used for pillow cases. The Internet has had a devastating impact on wildlife, he explained, because it has created a demand in the market for illegal specimens. He used the online sale of an endangered Asian elephant head as an example. “Five people bid on something and one person wins. What do the other four people do? All of a sudden, they need to find themselves an Asian elephant head or some other body part!” Poachers and smugglers are using Skype and online newspaper posts to aid their crimes, but Newcomer said Craigslist is the worst. “It’s the wild west of animal trafficking,” he said.
Newcomer’s final comment, made as an aside, caught my interest. He explained that agents with USFWS get their enforcement authority from the Lacey Act, which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. But something else falls under the Lacey Act, he said: preventing animal enterprise terrorism. “Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency responsible for enforcing the Lacey Act. There are no agents in Fish and Wildlife interested in the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, but the FBI is all over it!”
I have one minor quibble with “The Links,” and having considered this blog post for several days, I have to be candid. While the conference was motivating, informative, and very well executed, it featured one panel that was, in my opinion, a mistake — or at the very least, poorly handled. “The Role of Animals in Indigenous Cultures” was little more than a forum for justifying the exploitation of animals by Native American tribes and criticizing groups working to protect animals. Attendees sat dumbfounded as Native American activist Se-ah-dom Edmo and professor of law and tribal judge Robert Miller, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, discussed why Native Americans have a right to kill animals for food and religious purposes. It was clear that the two panelists were as uncomfortable as their audience when no one laughed at their playful swipes at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Though I recognize the value of understanding everyone’s legal rights, I had to wonder what these clearly intelligent speakers thought they were accomplishing by addressing a roomful of animal advocates. I’m neither an attorney nor a law student, so perhaps the significance of this discussion was lost on me; however, during the lunch break that followed this panel, many attendees complained that such a presentation had no place at an animal rights gathering. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended an AR conference that featured exploitation apologists, and my suggestion is that if such sessions are allowed, they should be moderated debates that allow ample audience participation. All questions at this panel had to be submitted in writing. A session arguing the need for killing animals and poking fun at activists only leaves attendees at these otherwise uplifting events feeling disempowered.
That criticism aside, the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) of Lewis & Clark Law School, which hosted the conference with the college’s Center for Animal Law Studies, did an extraordinary job. The sessions moved like clockwork, speakers were well prepared, and the subject matter was highly relevant. Kudos to the unflappable Liberty Mulkani, who coordinated the three-day event with confidence and a smile. My sincere thanks to the conference organizers for inviting me to speak this year.
When 10 activists from Austria’s Association Against Animal Factories (“Verein gegen Tierfabriken,” or VGT) were arrested in May 2008 and charged with “suspected forming of a criminal organization in connection with direct animal right actions,” activists around the world were quick to show their support. Animal Liberation Victoria even carried out an open rescue in solidarity with the prisoners, saving 13 hens from a battery-egg operation in June. All the attention shined a spotlight on the Austrian government, which released the activists in September. Clearly, in an age when the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act can become law with hardly an objection from lawmakers, anyone might find themselves behind bars for voicing an opinion not in step with the status quo.
“It’s important for us to be vocal and active about supporting people who have been incarcerated for defending animals ― or even just speaking out in their defense ― because it relays a clear message that the people abusing animals are the real criminals, not the people trying to protect them,” says Dallas Rising, president of Support Vegans in the Prison System (Support VIPS). “Supporting political prisoners of any kind makes a difference for the individual, but especially for animal rights activists. The average animal rights prisoner has very little in common with the general prison population, so having a connection to people who share a similar value system can be very important to people who are isolated, bored and frustrated by the lack of meaningful exchange in their environment.”
Peter Young, who served two years in federal prison for liberating animals from several fur farms in 1997, believes that supporting humans in prison sends a strong message to activists that there is a safety net for them if they are caught engaging in illegal actions on behalf of non-human animals. “This peace of mind makes the work of people fighting for animals under darkness much easier,” he says. “I have also found the stories of animal rights prisoners to be powerful outreach. These stories of people breaking the law to save animals raise the bar and bring those new to the issue a sense that if other people are willing to break the law to save animals, the least they can do is be vegan.”
There are many ways to help imprisoned activists, and providing a little support to someone facing years in jail can buoy that person’s morale and nurture solidarity in the movement. I am going to focus on five main methods: writing letters, sending books, visiting, helping vegan inmates get plant-based food and providing financial support (sending money, helping with legal expenses, etc.).
The first step is knowing where inmates are, and the easiest place to find addresses for animal activists serving time is the Internet:
- Bite Back magazine maintains a list of prisoners that the publisher updates weekly.
- The Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) site lists activists currently serving sentences for their actions against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).
- The Vegan Prisoners Support Group lists inmates in the UK (including SHAC).
- A SHAC7 support site in the US is also worth checking out.
Cards and letters are paramount to relieving an inmate’s feeling of isolation; however, all mail is opened and read by prison officials, so don’t write anything that may cause problems for the prisoner. “Depending on the prisoner, do not discuss the case or anything related to the case,” advises attorney Shannon Keith, who has represented a number of animal rights activists and campaigns, including SHAC and Sea Shepherd. “Do not discuss your feelings about whether the person is innocent or guilty.” She also says that most prisons do not accept anything other than letters and photos. “So, no stickers ― especially no animal rights stickers. No pictures depicting protests.”
Dallas cautions supporters not to take it personally if the inmate doesn’t respond. “It is not about you,” she says. “Don’t get upset if the person doesn’t write back to you, especially if they didn’t know you before going in. And even if they did know you, they may not have the mental or emotional energy to write back. Or they simply may not have the time.”
Unless you’re lucky enough to have unlimited time and resources, commit to writing just one or two inmates, and do it consistently.
Here are a few more letter-writing do’s and don’ts.
- Write on both sides of the paper.
- Write your address on the letter or card.
- Number the pages of your letter.
- Make sure the content of any photos you sent is appropriate; write the inmate’s name and prisoner ID number on the back of photos.
- Let imprisoned activists know about animal activism going on around the world.
- Send currency.
- Send stamps, envelopes, blank paper or blank note cards.
- Tape your envelope closed.
- Include paperclips, staples or other metal objects inside your letter.
- Send food or care packages.
- Send photographs larger than 4”x6”. No Polaroid photos.
- Write “legal mail” on the envelope or anything in your letter that implies you are an attorney.
“Letters to a prisoner can be like anchors or lifelines to the outside world,” says Andy Stepanian, who served two years and seven months in prison for “conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act” as part of the SHAC campaign (he was released in December 2008). “Although my mail was vetted for content, I still received bundles of letters, and every time I did I felt like I could hold my head a little higher. The letters reminded me of where I came from and what I was fighting for.”
Most inmates appreciate receiving books, since reading is one way to pass the time behind bars. It’s a good idea to write to the prisoner first to confirm he or she can receive books; you can also ask what kinds of books they would like to read.
Books sent to most prisons must be new and with a soft cover (paperback); hardcover books will either be refused or prison officials will tear off the covers before passing the book on to the inmate. Unfortunately, many prisons will not permit you to mail a book to an inmate yourself; instead, books must be sent either directly from the publisher or through an online retailer such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Prisoners are often able to list books they would like to receive on Amazon’s Wish List section (just search the inmate’s name), or through a support group Web site.
Each US federal prison has set up certain days and times ― visiting hours — for family and friends to visit inmates. The inmate you plan to visit should tell you what the hours are for that prison. But you can’t simply show up and expect to see an inmate.
“Most prisons require that you be accepted and on an approved list first, so before you take your trip to the prison, call to make sure you do not have to be approved first,” says Shannon. “If so, mail the prisoner and ask them to fill out a form for your visit. You will receive an approval later, and then you can visit as you please during visiting hours. When visiting, know that you are being watched and possibly recorded. Avoid discussing legally sensitive subjects. Dress appropriately.”
In the UK, visiting a convicted prisoner requires you to first have a visiting order (a “VO”); these are generally issued to inmates once a month, and he or she will mail it to you. Depending on the prisoner, visits are one to two hours, and prisoners may be allowed between two and four visitors a month. For more information on Visiting inmates in the UK, click here.
If a city or county jail is denying a prisoner access to vegan meals, a few phone calls to the warden can help, says Dallas. “There’s not a lot people can do to help make sure a vegan is getting good food in a federal prison, but in a jail, phone calls matter a lot.”
Peter agrees. “Mob-action phone calls work,” he says. “You can’t overstate how concerned most jailers are with outside scrutiny. I have never had a problem with food that 100 phone calls in six hours did not fix. One jail was so concerned about the perceived threat of angry activists they sent a sheriff to the supermarket each morning, with a shopping list I wrote with my own hand.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals can help with prisons. PETA’s Bruce Friedrich says it is best if the judge orders the prison to provide vegan food before the convicted vegan heads to jail. “If your judge orders it, you’re set.” Failing that, family and friends on the outside can help by contacting PETA. “PETA is always ready to work to get vegan food for anyone who is having trouble,” says Bruce.
Although prisons may not be known for their vegan fare, some have surprisingly good plant-based food options, including lentil shepherd’s pie, vegan pizza, veggie burgers and mock meats. Here is PETA’s list of the top 10 veg-friendly US prisons.
Prisoners must pay for envelopes, postage stamps, phone cards and other necessities. They may even have to buy their own vegan food from the prison commissary. They probably also have legal fees. All these expenses can be offset with a fundraising effort managed by friends on the outside. Some organizations, like SHAC, set these up and allow people to donate online. Moreover, they raise funds through benefit concerts, film screenings and product sales.
“Fundraising for costly legal fees is always appreciated,” says Dallas. “As a bonus, you automatically have something to write about.”
You can also support inmates by sending money directly to their commissary account. The US Bureau of Prisons has a system to maintain an inmate’s monies while he or she is incarcerated. Family, friends or other sources may deposit funds into these accounts. For details on options for depositing funds into a prisoner’s account, click here.
You might also consider money-transfer services like JPay that allow you to get funds to a prisoner the next business day.
Prisoner Support Groups
SVIPS – United States
Founded by Dallas Rising, Peter Young and Aaron Zellhoefer, Support Vegans in the Prison System (SVIPS) assists prisoners needing vegan food, toiletries and general support.
VPSG – United Kingdom
Vegan Prisoners Support Group (VPSG) helps prisoners obtain vegan food, vegan toiletries and vegan footwear. British animal rights activist Jo-Ann Brown formed the group in 1994 to aid activist Keith Mann. Since then, VPSG’s work has grown, and it has been called upon to advise on disputes between prisoners and the prison service relating to vegan diets. Though based in the UK, VPSG supports prisoners in other countries. While incarcerated in Austria last August, for example, VGT activist Elmar Völkl wrote: “The Vegan Prisoner Support Group work must have been very good, because from the first day I got vegan food (on the first day I didn’t get anything), although I didn’t ever mention the word ‘vegan’ once!”
ALFSG – United Kingdom
The Animal Liberation Front Supporters Group (ALFSG) is a legal, above-ground organization that provides financial and practical support to those who find themselves in prison as part of the movement.
Advice from Prisoners of Conscience
Peter Young gave a talk on prisoner support at last year’s Let Live conference, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
SHAC activist Lauren Gazzola believes no form of support is better than activists staying active. Lauren, now serving a four-year, four-month sentence at a federal prison in Connecticut, told Abolitionist Online: “[T]o everyone who has written, sent books, donated, or done any other form of direct support, please know that the best form of support we can receive is vicarious ― please get out and fight for the animals. Step up your efforts, no matter where you currently stand in your activism ― take one step further, inspired by the SHAC7, and make our conviction a victory for the animals.”
“It’s easy to get lost in prison,” says Andy. “Lost in solitude, despair or other negative sentiments. Letters and outside support help pull you out of that space and strengthen you, make you whole.” Andy encourages people on the outside not to be deterred if they don’t know what to write about. “What many fail to understand is that the prisoner is just eager to make contact, to hear good news about movement victories or reconnect with an old friend. If you are a stranger, don’t feel discouraged. I can speak from firsthand experience that on some of my worst days while imprisoned, it was the words of a stranger that helped me trudge through another day. Something as simple as describing a beautiful day outside may mean the world to a prisoner at that moment when they open your envelope.”