Where's the legal line drawn in animal-rights activism?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2012 

WASHINGTON — A federal courthouse in Boston and a ranch in California's San Joaquin Valley present competing faces of the animal rights movement.

One side is peaceful. The other, decidedly, is not. Both can feel the weight of the law and the sting of being called a terrorist.

At the giant Harris Ranch, in western Fresno County, investigators are trying to solve the Jan. 8 arson that damaged 14 tractors and several cattle-hauling trailers. Anonymous animal-rights activists claimed responsibility for the fire.

The Harris Ranch arson was clearly a crime, however it happened. But in a new lawsuit, animal advocates with a far different tactical approach contend that Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other lawmakers went too far the last time Congress addressed animal rights activism, in 2006.

"We're not saying that one can't punish arson," attorney Rachel Meeropol said in an interview Friday, "but that's not what the (2006) law is about. The law reaches far too broadly."

Meeropol, who's with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, is representing Minneapolis resident Sarahjane Blum and four other activists in the lawsuit, filed Dec. 15. It argues that the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act violates the First Amendment rights of those who want to protest how animals are treated.

Blum, for one, founded GourmetCruelty.com, whose advocacy efforts helped persuade the California legislature in 2004 to ban traditional foie gras production. The ban, which blocks the force-feeding of ducks "for the purpose of enlarging the bird's liver beyond normal size," takes effect in July.

Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, animal rights advocates may be prosecuted for actions that cause "the loss of any real or personal property ... used by an animal enterprise" and for interstate travel that has the "purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise."

The animal-rights advocates' lawsuit argues that the broadly worded law could be used to prosecute activities such as picketing, if companies lose business or have to pay for extra security because of it.

Blum "was stunned that the ethical, important work that she had devoted her life to had been turned overnight into terrorism," the lawsuit says, adding that she now curtails advocacy "that risks prosecution" under the law.

The Justice Department hasn't filed its response.

Lawmakers, though, say tougher laws and stricter penalties are needed to stop zealous activism that evolves into violence. Feinstein, in supporting the 2006 law, cited attempted bombings that targeted a University of California at Los Angeles primate research center and a San Francisco Bay Area pharmaceutical company.

"This legislation is crucial to respond to the expanded scope of terrorist activity," Feinstein said during Senate debate.

Feinstein was the only Democrat to join Republicans, including Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and current presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, in co-sponsoring the Senate bill. It eventually passed the House of Representatives and the Senate easily, but it hasn't yet been extensively used.

In 2009, federal prosecutors used the law to charge four activists with going too far in their protests against animal research labs at University of California campuses at Berkeley and Santa Cruz.

"The defendants are accused of chanting slogans such as '1, 2, 3, 4, open up the cage door; 5, 6, 7, 8, smash the locks and liberate; 9, 10, 11, 12, vivisectors go to hell," the Justice Department noted in a June 15, 2009, court filing.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte, whom President George H.W. Bush appointed to the bench, dismissed the case in 2010.

In another rare use of the law, Utah residents William Viehl and Alex Hall pleaded guilty and were sentenced to nearly two years in prison for releasing hundreds of minks in 2008 at a mink farm and spray-painting slogans that included, "No more mink, no more murder."

The Utah incident was less kinetic than what happened near Coalinga, Calif. on the early morning of Jan. 8, when firefighters needed 45 minutes to put out a blaze that started at the Harris Ranch truck storage area.

An anonymous statement subsequently posted on a website maintained by the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which calls itself a clearinghouse for others, said the attack showed "the enemy is still vulnerable" and signed off "until next time."

Feinstein's office has been in contact with the Harris Ranch since the incident, according to a spokesman.

Farm groups insist that animal-rights groups must help find the perpetrators.

"If they sit by silently while animal rightists attack law-abiding businesses, they are passively endorsing domestic terrorism," Paul Wenger, the president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said this week in a statement.

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