A federal judge yesterday said that a new law to protect businesses from animal rights extremists "may be legally vulnerable," during a hearing for the first four defendants charged with breaking the law, reports The Mercury News.
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, signed by President Bush in 2006, made it a federal crime for an individual to damage the private property of or to violently intimidate anyone associated with firms that use animals while conducting business, such as research laboratories and zoos.
Federal prosecutors invoked the law for the first time earlier this year, indicting four activists accused of threats and vandalism against University of California medical researchers in Santa Cruz and Berkeley.
Lawyers for the defendants, backed by civil liberties groups, argue that the animal terrorism law is unconstitutional. They say it's too broad, vague and tramples on the free speech rights of animal rights advocates who protest and boycott for their cause. In moving to dismiss the indictment, they maintain the law targets animal rights groups so broadly that it would criminalize a boycott or protest outside a fur store.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), noticeably, did not oppose the bill when it was moving through Congress. As Security Management reported in April (print edition only), the ACLU instead asked "Congress to clarify that the legislation's language prohibiting conduct that 'intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property' did not criminalize legitimate dissent such as boycotts, demonstrations, or whistleblowing."
Defense Attorney Kali Grech told U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte for the Northern District of California that the AETA violated constitutionally protected behaviors, such as boycotts, as well as policed ideas.
As Security Management reported in February, the four defendants were charged with their involvement in four incidents:
... an October 2007 protest outside a UC-Berkeley professor's home where the activists trespassed onto the property; demonstrating and "chalking" slogans outside several UC researchers' homes in January 2008; the February 2008 home invasion of a UCSC researcher, which ended in the assault of the researcher's husband; and the July 2008 dissemination of fliers that contained UCSC researchers' names, addresses, and telephone numbers along with intimidating language.
Since 2006, animal rights extremists have attacked University of California researchers at their homes 12 times. Six of the attacks involved incendiary devices.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elise Becker, however, told Whyte that the law was constitutional and protected people associated with animal enterprises from violent intimidation and threats.
"The Supreme Court has consistently found that threats are not protected speech," Becker said.
According to the AETA, the law cannot be construed in a way to prohibit activities protected by the First Amendment, "including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration."
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