Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act – Overbroad, Overreaching, overboard – we're over it

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) is a dramatic example of how industry groups are using the rhetoric of the War on Terror to attack activists who protest business activities. For most people, the term “terrorism” refers to injuring or killing human beings in particular contexts — perhaps blowing up a car bomb or flying an airplane into an office tower. To be a “terrorist” under AETA — and guilty of a felony — you don’t need to hurt or kill anyone. You can be guilty under AETA just for planning activities “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise” (as defined in the law) — even if those activities are otherwise entirely legal.

On its face, it is clear that AETA was drafted by industry groups to target activists who have protested the animal industry. It appears to focus on protest tactics that industry found particularly annoying — or effective. Should activists trespass, damage property, or injure an individual, they could be arrested under regular laws that prohibit those acts, with penalties related to the seriousness of the crime. For example, simple trespassing is not a felony. The only rationale for AETA is to turn protest tactics that would otherwise be legal, or minor offenses, into felonies — while seeking to demonize activists by erroneously labeling these protest tactics as “terrorism.”

AETA is peculiar because it only targets protest activities against “animal enterprises.” Thus, activities that would be criminalized by AETA would be entirely legal if the target was an oil company, weapons manufacturer, or abortion clinic — just so long as they don’t in any way connect to a very broadly defined “animal enterprise.” This begs the question of whether each social movement will eventually get its own “terrorism” bill — drafted by industry lobbyists — to protect each particular industry against the most effective protest tactics employed by its critics. How about the Lumber Enterprise Terrorism Act to criminalize tree-sitting, the Mountaintop Removal Terrorism Act or the Freeway Expansion Terrorism Act?

To understand just how absurd AETA is, it is helpful to look at the precise language of the law and how the “terrorism” label on the surface of the act isn’t matched by any “terrorism” in the actual law.

The law states:

Whoever . . . (1) for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise; and (2) in connection with such purpose:

(A) intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise, or any real or personal property of a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transaction with an animal enterprise;

(B) intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to that person, a member of the immediate family (as defined in section 115) of that person, or a spouse or intimate partner of that person by a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation; or

(C) conspires or attempts to do so;

shall be punished as provided for in subsection (b).

Sub-section (C) is the loosest part the law and the most subject to government abuse since it makes it a felony just to “attempt” to interfere with an animal enterprise, or to conspire to interfere where the plan involves a violation of (A) or (B). To understand how little is required to violate AETA, one has to understand conspiracy law. Under the law, it appears that anyone “conspiring” to “interfere with the operations” of any of the “animal enterprises” where the plan involved any of the acts in (A) or (B) could be labeled a terrorist and guilty of a felony. A conspiracy can involve as little as entering into an agreement with one other person with one “overt act” (which can be totally legal, i.e. making a flier) taken to further the “conspiracy”. You don’t have to actually do an action to be guilty of conspiracy.

Since conspiracy is such a flexible charge, it is hard to say what might result in charges under the law. Would agreeing to engage in petty vandalism like spray-painting at an industry conference be conspiracy to damage property to interfere with an animal industry? Would agreeing to trespass in front of a circus in a symbolic act of civil disobedience be conspiracy to interfere with the circus, and thus be defined as terrorism? What about if you’re involved with a group that organizes a protest and someone you don’t even know damages property? What about making signs for a home demonstration against a vivisector where the resident claims to be terrified?

While sub-section (C) is the worst part of the law, sub-sections (A) and (B) aren’t much better. Both criminalize legal acts, very minor infractions, or conduct so subjective and in the eye of the beholder that it is impossible to know what might be illegal under AETA.

Under sub-section (A), any action intended to interfere with an animal enterprise is a felony if “in connection with such purpose” the defendant “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property.” While intentionally damaging property sounds scary and bad, the language of the law is very vague. Presumably, pasting a sticker on a window during a demonstration would be an “intentional damage” to property. Or painting graffiti. Or petty vandalism. If these acts were prosecuted without AETA, they might be punishable by a fine or community service, if they were prosecuted at all. But under AETA, they become a terrorist act because of the intentions (the thoughts) of the activists doing them. Under the conspiracy portion of AETA, a whole group of people who planned a symbolic action that incidentally resulted in minor property damage could be prosecuted on federal charges as terrorists.

The penalty section of AETA links the severity of the criminal penalty with the level of “economic damage” or harm associated with a particular AETA violation, ranging from a year in jail to life in prison. The severity of the punishment hinges in part on whether a particular action “instills in another the reasonable fear of serious bodily injury or death” — a vague and potentially subjective standard as to what is “reasonable” fear. The definition of the term “economic damage” is geared right towards what industry cares about most: the bottom line. “[T]he term ‘economic damage’ (A) means the replacement costs of lost or damages property or records, the costs of repeating an interrupted or invalidated experiment, the loss of profits, or increased costs, including losses and increased costs resulting from threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, trespass, harassment, or intimidation taken against a person or entity on account of that person’s or entity’s connection to, relationship with, or transactions with the animal enterprise.”

Under sub-section (B), intentionally placing a person in “reasonable fear” “by a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation” for the purpose of “interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise” is illegal. The “course of conduct” language is vague because it mixes illegal acts with undefined and potentially free speech activities. One person’s “harassment” is another person’s persistent protest campaign. Most of the illegal “course of conduct” acts — vandalism, trespassing — would be minor infractions, not felonies, but for AETA. The government can already prosecute activists for vandalism or trespassing under existing laws, with penalties fitting the seriousness (or lack of seriousness) of the crime.

None of the acts prohibited under subsections (A), (B), or (C) rise to the level of terrorism because none of the prohibited acts involve physical violence against anyone — none of the sub-sections involve the injury or death of anyone. Which
raises the question: why does AETA use the word terrorism? Perhaps to scare the public and to smear activists? Why does the government need AETA in the first place if acts like property destruction, vandalism, trespassing and violence against individuals are already illegal? Because it is designed to prosecute activists who can’t be prosecuted for an actual crime? And why does the law only go after activists who protest “animal enterprises”? Because animal industry lobbyists wanted to portray animal protesters as somehow scarier than other activists, and they had the political muscle to get the law passed?

The definition of “animal enterprise” in the law is particularly instructive. The law defines it as:

(A) a commercial or academic enterprise that uses or sells animals or animal products for profit, food or fiber production, agriculture, education, research or testing;

(B) a zoo, aquarium, animal shelter, pet store, breeder, furrier, circus, or rodeo, or other lawful competitive animal event; or

(C) any fair or similar event intended to advance agriculture arts and sciences.

The list, undoubtedly written by industry lobbyists, is a neat summary of American animal rights protest actions over the last 30 years. Animal rights activists have protested fur farms, zoos, rodeos, factory farms, animal research labs, and national conferences like the annual Bio-industry conference. The intent presumably has always been to interfere with business operations that exploit non-human animals, and in fact to shut down businesses to the extent they exploit animals.

When AETA was enacted in 2007, it was widely criticized as overbroad. Now with the February 20, 2009 arrest of four California animal rights activists and the March 5th arrest of William “BJ” Viehl and Alex Hall in Utah, AETA is getting its first test in real world conditions. The government’s use of AETA against the AETA4 demonstrates the key problems with the entire law. The indictment filed March 12 charges that the four engaged in a conspiracy to interfere with animal enterprises by intentionally attempting to place protected individuals in fear. None of the four are charged with any crime other than the AETA charge — none are charged with trespassing, vandalism or hurting anyone. Under the government’s theory, the AETA4 are somehow “terrorists” even in the absence of any involvement in a violent act. The AETA4 case is a dangerous over-extension of government power and a reckless misuse of the term “terrorist.” It should be exposed.

For info on the Utah AETA case, visit