Animal Rights Activists Challenge Law Threatening Free Speech

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December 19, 2011

JURIST is reporting that a group of animal rights activists filed a lawsuit on Dec. 15, 2011 to challenge the constitutionality of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), saying the law has the potential to criminalize many forms of protest that are protected by the First Amendment. The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of five animal rights activists who argue that they can no longer engage in lawful advocacy out of fear of prosecution under AETA. 

According to the lawsuit:

“AETA fails to define key terms, but its plain language criminalizes core political advocacy and speech that are protected by the First Amendment. For example, it punishes otherwise lawful and innocuous speech or advocacy that causes a business that uses or sells animal products to lose profit, even where that lost profit comes from a decrease in sales in reaction to public advocacy. Thus, AETA effectively criminalizes the very purpose of the First Amendment—changing people's minds. ...”
“The law criminalizes causing damage or loss to the real or personal property of an animal enterprise,” said Rachel Meerpol, an attorney at CCR. “Because those terms aren’t defined, you have to take them at their common usage. And under common usage, 'personal property' includes money, includes profits. So that means that the acts can fairly be read to criminalize anyone who causes a business to lose profits. Activists from any social movements could be subject to prosecution as terrorists if their advocacy, if their lawful protest, affects the bottom line of a business.”

In 2009, four activists were charged under AETA by participating in demonstrations at the homes of University of California scientists who did animal research. A judge eventually dismissed the charges.