On November 27, 2006, after heavy lobbying by the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was signed into law. The AETA makes it a terrorist offense to engage in certain speech and activity that causes an “animal enterprise” the loss of real or personal property. (There is a dispute as to whether the term ‘loss of property’ means ‘loss of profits.’)
The authors of this designer legislation were certainly aware of its problematic reach and so included within it a ‘rule of construction.’ This ‘rule of construction’ is, in itself, a great legal construct because it means that, notwithstanding what’s actually in the law, nothing shall be construed to prohibit any conduct that is protected by the First Amendment.
That is, even if the law is written in a way that criminalizes constitutionally protected speech and advocacy, it really doesn’t, you see, because it says that it doesn’t.
Currently, this law is being challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights in the State of Massachusetts. The plaintiffs, all activists who’ve devoted their lives to advancing the compassionate and ethical treatment of animals, claim that the AETA criminalizes the free speech and political advocacy guaranteed by the First Amendment – that is, the AETA makes it a crime to peacefully attempt to change people’s minds.
The AETA is an insidious and dangerous law not only for those in the animal rights movement, but to every one of us for the following reasons:
- Free Speech is a Defense against Violence
Political violence usually comes in two varieties: 1) those who can’t get what they want through advocacy, yet remained so convinced of their arguments that they engage in violence and 2) those whose advocacy is silenced and so must advance their cause in other ways. Accordingly, any suppression or ‘chill’ of free speech generally leads to more, not less, violence, regardless of cause or country.
- The Government is Discriminating on the Basis Of Viewpoint
The AETA targets the animal rights movement specifically, singling out activity that affects animal enterprises. The government is not acting as the referee in an ongoing and spirited public debate, but prematurely choosing the winner. If laws like the AETA are allowed to stand, important political debates will be decided before they have begun and the government will pre-emptively be deciding that which we should be deciding for ourselves.
- State Level Ag-Gag Laws Prevent Undercover Investigations
A number of states have used the AETA umbrella to pass so-called ag-gag laws, which make undercover investigations illegal, so there will be no method of documenting what goes on inside animal enterprises. This has grave consequences not only for the animals within those poorly regulated and often inhumane enterprises — but also for those who continue to eat the meat that comes from them.
Many people think free speech is important in case they find themselves on the wrong side of power and prestige. And that’s certainly true, for what it’s worth.
But the merit of unrestricted and expansive speech is far greater than that. Because it’s only by vigorous debate and within the protests, placards, signs and songs – only within the cacophony of our raised and numerous voices — that we, as a nation and as individuals, find out who we truly are.
The plaintiffs in this case, all animal rights activists, have long fought to give voice to the voiceless, but now their advocacy is broader: now they speak for the potentially de-voiced as well — which is every one of us.
Let’s not allow ourselves to be silenced.
More information on this case is available at The Center for Constitutional Rights.