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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.

Sarahjane Blum and one lucky duck.

“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.”

 

 

Back in 2009, I wrote about the value of “one-click activism”; that is, using the Internet to participate in positive changes for animals. Since then there have been a number of headline-grabbing stories that involve activists using the Internet, from the more than 31,000 Change.org community members who helped convince the Food Network to stop featuring sharks as food to an online protest that led to the cancellation of a dog-meat festival in China last month. Now, I’m not suggesting that such armchair activism can ever replace more traditional avenues of campaigning. But as a tool for change, Web 2.0 activism is becoming undeniably important.

Change.org is one organization in an emerging field that is using the Internet to help people turn clicks into social change. To get an idea just how valuable online petitions have become, I asked two Change.org editors, Sarah Parsons and Stephanie Feldstein, to offer their insights. Sarah writes about food-related subjects on the site, and Stephanie is focused on animal issues. I began by asking Sarah how petitions on the site are created and who can create them. “Anybody, anywhere can create a petition,” she said. “We’ve had everyone from individuals to national non-profits. We try to promote petitions that have broad appeal to a fairly sizable audience. We do feature local campaigns as well, but they should be something that people in other parts of the country can relate to. We also want to make sure it’s something that is timely — that we feel can make an impact in the immediate future, rather than something that might take several years to accomplish.”

In addition to the recent success story about the Food Network, Change.org features a number of victories for animals, such as Urban Outfitters apologizing for selling real fur and a town in the UK halting a factory farm. But are all such victories directly linked to petitions, or are other factors involved? “It depends,” said Sarah. “Sometimes the online petition is the driving factor that creates the change; other times it’s just one piece of the puzzle. There could be an organization or individuals who are doing some on-the-ground organizing, who are holding protests or rallies or who are working with other groups to apply pressure. Sometimes the online petition is the main pressure point and other times it’s just one tool that is being used as part of a broader effort.”

I asked Stephanie how animal issues rank with Change.org’s members. “While we don’t have a ranking system among our causes,” she said, “animal issues are consistently among the most popular, both in terms of people coming to Change.org to sign campaigns and to start campaigns.” Okay, I responded, tell us a little about those campaigns. Which petitions for animals strike you as particularly meaningful? Stephanie said that one of the biggest victories they’ve had was working with the Ian Somerhalder Foundation (ISF) to push for reform to British Columbia’s animal cruelty laws. (Ian Somerhalder is anactor best known for his roles on Lost and The Vampire Diaries.) “When the story broke earlier this year that 100 sled dogs had been executed after a slow tourist season, animal activists around the world were furious,” explained Stephanie. “Ian wanted to make sure this kind of cruelty didn’t happen again, so ISF started a petition on Change.org, which laid out an ambitious list of improvements to British Columbia’s laws. More than 60,000 Change.org members joined the campaign. When the Sled Dog Task Force — which had been appointed in the wake of the public outcry about the 100 slaughtered sled dogs — submitted its final report to the government, it cited ISF’s Change.org petition, and nearly every recommendation from the petition was adopted by the provincial government.” She is also proud that their petition in support of the California bill on the sale and possession of shark fins attracted more than 27,000 signatures. The governor signed the bill into law last week.

One of the most encouraging aspects of online petitions is that they don’t take a lot of signatures to become an agent of change. “We had one campaign targeting Citibank Singapore, which was offering an incentive for new members to get a discount at a restaurant that served shark fin soup,” said Sarah. “The petition had about 75 signatures in 24 hours, and that was enough to get them to pull that promotion. So it’s not necessarily the number of signatures; sometimes just bringing it to a company’s attention is enough to get them to move on something.” But, I wondered, when a company like Citibank makes a change, how do you know it’s because of the petition? “You have to look at what else is going on in the space. If there are other organizations working on the same issue then you can’t say it was only because of this petition. But in the Citibank case in particular, there was really only this online petition that was calling them out to stop running this promotion. And as soon as the petition started, they ended up pulling the offer. We’ve also had companies respond to our petitions, and sometimes we work with them. It’s not always an antagonistic relationship. Sometimes a company is very willing to work with you as long as you bring it to their attention.”

Sarah acknowledged that a lot of activists consider social media activism to be a waste of time. “Certainly there’s this criticism that just signing an online petition is slacktivism, and that criticism will probably always exist,” she said. “But I think what our platform shows is that online petitions can be very powerful, and as we move into an increasingly technological age, communications via the Internet is really the wave of the future. It’s not slacktivism; it’s just modern.”

Sarah ended our conversation with this advice: “Don’t ever feel there’s nothing you can do. If you see a problem in your community or the country at large, there is a way for one person to make an impact. There’s no issue that’s too big or too small. It doesn’t cost any money. All you need is an Internet connection.”

 


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