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Will Potter, U.S. House Passes Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act With Little Discussion or Dissent

U.S. House Passes Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act With Little Discussion or Dissent:
Notes from the House Floor “Debate”
Will Potter, Green Is the New Red

They did it. Corporations, industry groups and the politicians that represent them rushed through legislation labeling activists as “terrorists” on the first day back from Congressional recess. Just moments ago [Nov. 13, 2006] the House passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as part of the suspension calendar: in other words it was put on a list of non-controversial bills to pass with one swoop by voice vote.

Here’s a recap of some of my notes on the “debate” on the House floor. I apologize that this is not in a more polished form, but I wanted to get this out to you all right away.Representative Bobby Scott, often called the go-to guy in the House on civil liberties and civil rights issues, came out swinging in support of the “eco-terrorism” bill. Not only did he not oppose the legislation, he lined up with the corporations, industry groups and conservative extremists in full support of it. Scott, a Democrat, said existing laws have been “reasonably effective” but “gaps and loopholes” prevent law enforcement from going after animal rights “extremists.” Scott failed to note, even in passing, that the existing law — the Animal Enterprise Protection Act – was used to successfully prosecute the SHAC 7 on “animal enterprise terrorism” charges for running a website. Scott dishonestly ignores this crucial bit of information, and said that activists are “taking advantage of the fact that” AEPA doesn’t cover “affiliates and associates” of animal enterprises: but that was, precisely, what the SHAC campaign was all about.

Disturbingly, Scott said in passing that civil disobedience would be covered in the bill — something other supporters of the bill have denied — but he tried to ease public fears by saying that the civil disobedience must cause disruption and loss of profits, and “it must be proven that such losses were specifically intended.” Bobby Scott, who frequently praises the achievements of the civil rights movement, stood on the House floor and advocated the inclusion of the tactics used by that movement in a “terrorism” bill. The only things that’s different between then and now, between the civil rights and animal rights movement, is the cause.

Representative Thomas Petri, a Republican from Wisconsin usually in stark contrast to Scott, said much of the same. He had the nerve to stand on the House floor and say, with a straight face, that “current federal law,” including the AEPA, has been “inadequate” in going after animal rights activists. Petri knows full well that ALL the crimes listed in this bill are already crimes, that the original bill has been used successfully, and that the animal and environmental movements have never claimed a single human life. Petri and the corporations that support him call the existing legislation “inadequate” because, in their mind, the true threat is not the underground wing of the movement, but the movement itself. That’s where this vague and overly broad legislation comes into place, wrapping up civil disobedience, undercover investigations and other non-violent activity as “terrorism.”

Only Representative Dennis Kucinich spoke up against this dangerous legislation. “This bill was written to have a chilling effect,” he said, “on a specific type of protest.” He also said that, “We have to be very careful of painting everyone with broad brush of terrorism.” And, in an interesting spin on the debate, Kucinich said lawmakers would be better off addressing animal issues and demonstrating their compassion.

He also raised what’s essentially a very conservative argument about the bill preempting existing law. A section of the bill says it shall not be construed

(3) to provide exclusive criminal penalties or civil remedies with respect to the conduct prohibited by this action, or to preempt State or local laws that may provide such penalties or remedies.

Kucinich noted that that’s precisely what the bill does. It provides exclusive penalties based on the beliefs of those who are accused.

Kucinich got in a little back and forth with James Sensenbrenner about the bill, with Sensenbrenner repeatedly citing a provision of the bill that “exempts” First Amendment activity. (Thank you to Senenbrenner and our patriotic members of Congress for reminding us that their is still a First Amendment. However, saying “this is Constitutional!” doesn’t make it so. If anything, it’s an admission that the bill has serious flaws.) At one point, Sensenbrenner read off a list of quotes from animal activists that he said exemplified the targets of the legislation. It was the same tired old list of quotes from the mid-90s and from a fairly recent Congressional hearing. Kucinich promptly noted that the quotes were exactly that: “Constitutionally-protected speech.” It’s misleading, he said, to say the bill exempts First Amendment activity, then use First Amendment activity as an example of why the bill is needed.

But perhaps the most disturbing segment of this whole scare-mongering debacle was when Sensenbrenner ended his comments, and ended the floor debate, by talking about the American Civil Liberties Union. He said the ACLU is the guardian of the First Amendment. He said the ACLU has a proud history of being a constitutional watchdog. And he said he has a letter, from the ACLU, saying they would not oppose this legislation and had no substantial concerns, essentially giving the Green Scare a green light.

This is from the ACLU's website:

ACLU Letter to Congress Urging Opposition to the Animal Enterprise Act, S. 1926 and H.R. 4239 (3/6/2006)

Re: Animal Enterprise Act, S. 1926 and H.R. 4239

Dear Member of Congress:

On behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, a non-partisan organization with hundreds of thousands of activists and members and 53 affiliates nation-wide, we write today to explain our opposition to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, S. 1926 and H.R. 4239 (AETA), a bill that amends the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), now 18 U.S.C. § 43. The AETA criminalizes First Amendment activities such as demonstrations, leafleting, undercover investigations, and boycotts. The bill is overly broad, vague, and unnecessary because federal criminal laws already provide a wide range of punishments for unlawful activities targeting animal enterprises.

It’s important to let the reader know what conduct is criminal under current law, too. What are the elements of the crime? Setting them forth now is useful to make your point that the bill criminalizes speech. The AEPA, which passed in 1992, created a penalty of $10,000 or 10 years to life imprisonment for any physical disruption that leads to $10,000 in damages to an animal enterprise. AETA expands the class of criminal behavior in 18 U.S.C. § 43, by changing the term used to described activity “for the purpose of causing physical disruption” to activity “for the purpose of damaging or disrupting” an animal enterprise. The overbroad class of “disruptive” activities apply to any and all activities that result in “losses and increased costs” in excess of $10,000.

Lawful and peaceful protests that, for example, urge a consumer boycott of a company that does not use humane procedures, could be the target of this provision because they “disrupt” the company’s business. This overbroad provision might also apply to a whistleblower whose intentions are to stop harmful or illegal activities by the animal enterprise. The bill will effectively chill and deter Americans from exercising their First Amendment rights to advocate for reforms in the treatment of animals.

Alarmingly, the bill would also make the expanded crime a predicate for Title III federal criminal wiretapping. This provision could be used for widespread domestic surveillance of animal rights organizations. A court will be far more likely to find probable cause for a vague crime of causing economic damage or disruption to an animal enterprise than for a crime that requires some evidence that the organization plans to engage in activity causing illegal “physical disruption.”

While the bill provides an exemption for “lawful public, governmental, or business reaction to the disclosure of information about an animal enterprise,” that exemption applies only to claims of economic “disruption” and not claims of economic “damage.” It also does not necessarily cover the entire range of expression protected by the First Amendment, which covers more than a lawful “reaction” to a “disclosure of information.” Ordinary persons would not understand which activities are prohibited and which are lawful.

The bill AETA also expands the types of facilities covered by the AEPA. The bill adds facilities that sell animals, expands the class of criminal behavior to include threatening conduct (which could have a chilling effect on legitimate whistleblowers) and expands the class of entities protected from the enterprise itself to persons connected to the enterprise. Finally, AETA doubles the criminal penalties and criminalizes attempts to disrupt, which creates a greater danger of encompassing protected speech.

Amendments to AEPA are unnecessary. The Department of Justice has successfully used the existing Animal Enterprise TerrorismProtection Act to obtain indictments of members of animal rights organizations alleged to have engaged in violent behavior. The ACLU urges you to oppose the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, S. 1926 and H.R. 4239.

We thank you for your consideration of our views.


Caroline Fredrickson

Director, Washington Legislative Office

Lisa Graves,

Senior Counsel on Legislative Strategy