Five longtime activists are challenging a federal law that defines a wide spectrum of peaceful – and in some cases, otherwise lawful – animal rights activism as acts of terrorism. They say that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) violates their First Amendment right to free speech and has had a chilling effect on activists who are refraining from participating in what should be constitutionally protected activity out of fear of being labeled a terrorist.
They have good reason to worry. In 2009, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested and indicted four California protesters for terrorism, each of whom faced 10 years in prison. Their crimes? They “marched, chanted, and chalked” sidewalk slogans outside the homes of animal researchers and distributed fliers about their campaign.
In 2010, federal judge Ronald M. Whyte dismissed the indictments, agreeing with the defense that the charges were too vague because the “behavior in question spans a wide spectrum from criminal conduct to constitutionally protected political protest.” Nevertheless, AETA continues to pose a threat to those participating in animal rights advocacy.