AETA and the Assault on Academic Freedom By David Naguib Pellow

Radical Earth and animal liberation movements have gained considerable visibility in recent years for causing significant property and economic damage to laboratories, slaughterhouses, power lines, ski resorts, fur farms, timber operations and industrial agricultural and farming facilities through arson, sabotage (ecotage), animal liberation and vandalism. More importantly, activists have questioned what they view as the violence of capitalism, speciesism and ecological destruction. Not surprisingly, state repression directed at these movements has intensified and included harassment, surveillance, infiltration, intimidation, grand jury subpoenas and imprisonment—a range of practices that have become known as the Green Scare. In 2005, government officials named radical Earth and animal liberation movements as the number one domestic “terrorist” threat in the US.

Why would the nation state label animal and Earth liberation activists “terrorists”? What does this have to do with academic freedom, and what is the broader social and political significance of the Green Scare for social movements and scholars who teach or do research on these issues or who work in solidarity with these groups?

Unlike other “terrorist” threats, the Earth and animal liberation movements have thus far not killed a single person in the US. Rather, the focus is on property damage and producing economic losses in industries such as forestry and animal research. It is the emphasis on property damage that is perhaps the single most important factor driving state repression of these movements. In Congressional testimony, the Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division explained, “From January 1990 to June 2004, animal and environmental rights extremists have claimed credit for more than 1,200 criminal incidents, resulting in millions of dollars in damage and monetary loss…. We are committed to working with our partners to disrupt and dismantle these movements and to bring to justice those who commit crime in the name of animal or environmental rights.”

Another response to the success of these movements was the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which makes it not only unlawful, but a crime of “terrorism” to harm the profits of an industry whose products are primarily based on the use of animals (extending the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act). This “harm” to industry can include boycotting, picketing and any other form of constitutionally protected protest that leads to a drop in revenue for businesses like furriers, circuses, animal research testing laboratories and farms. The AETA also criminalizes actions that instill a “reasonable fear” in animal enterprise employees or their family members, thus further expanding an already overly broad and vague law. Thus, the AETA effectively brands civil disobedience as “terrorism” and does the same with constitutionally protected activities like free speech. Thus far, several activists have been indicted, charged and imprisoned under this law, including Scott DeMuth, a Twin Cities, Minnesota based anarchist and sociology graduate student.

If part of what state repression is about is an effort to control the production and application of dissident knowledge and ideas, then it stands to reason that a central focus of that work will be on the university, where knowledge of social justice movements is often taught and researched, and where social movements frequently gain significant strength in membership and leadership from student and faculty bodies. This points to the critical need for the preservation and protection of academic freedom—which I define as the freedom for scholars to teach, research, write, think and act as political beings within the guidelines of relevant professional standards and ethics, and without intimidation or censorship (see Anthony Nocella, Steven Best and Peter McLaren’s book Academic Repression for more information on this).

Unfortunately, academic repression has become commonplace in the US, as scholars are increasingly censored, disciplined, harassed, and sometimes fired and jailed for expressing critical, dissenting, or controversial views. Rik Scarce’s case is perhaps most immediately relevant. Scarce, a Professor of Sociology at Skidmore College in New York, spent fi ve months in jail for contempt of court when he refused to testify to a grand jury in 1990 regarding an investigation of an unsolved break-in at an animal research and testing lab. He refused to testify on the grounds that his confidentiality agreements associated with academic research protected him and his research participants just as shield laws do for journalists.

In November 2009, Scott DeMuth was jailed for contempt of court, since he refused to answer questions posed to him by a federal grand jury in Davenport, Iowa. They were interested in questioning him about his knowledge of an unsolved Animal Liberation Front (ALF) action in 2004 at the University of Iowa. DeMuth is a University of Minnesota graduate student, a Dakota language student, and a Twin Cities anarchist involved in eco-prisoner support and indigenous decolonization politics. He took a principled stand against the grand jury and paid for it with a contempt charge and, two days later, a charge of conspiracy under the AETA. He is believed to have information on who might have committed the University of Iowa raid, since he has been researching and interviewing social movement activists for years.

In 2010, the state issued another indictment against DeMuth, charging him with involvement in an ALF fur farm raid in Minnesota in 2006. In a motion to the judge seeking a revocation of DeMuth’s release from jail, the Assistant US State’s Attorney Clifford Cronk wrote, “Defendant’s writings, literature, and conduct suggest that he is an anarchist and associated with the ALF movement. Therefore, he is a domestic terrorist.” In other words, DeMuth’s ideas, beliefs, his constitutionally protected political activities (such as volunteering with an eco-political prisoner support group), and his alleged affi liations were sufficient for the state to brand him a “terrorist.”

In September, DeMuth accepted a non-cooperating plea deal for misdemeanor conspiracy, which calls for up-to-six months imprisonment, to begin in January 2011 (he could have faced years in prison if convicted of the Iowa action).

Unfortunately, the federal government did not stop with him. They soon contacted me, his advisor, for information about DeMuth and about my own research on Earth and animal liberation movements. The FBI and Department of Justice requested information about the identities of participants in my research study, but I refused to cooperate.

A number of concerned activist-scholars—including me—recently started a group called Scholars for Academic Justice, a support network for scholars facing threats to their academic and personal freedom. We initially organized around Scott DeMuth’s case but have now grown to become a national network supporting threatened scholars around the US, which often involves professors whose work is viewed as a threat to state or corporate interests. One scholar we are currently supporting is Ricardo Dominguez. He is an artist and scholar at the University of California, San Diego whose tenure came under fire after he coordinated a virtual sit-in at the University of California Office of the President alongside student protests, concerning racially motivated hate crimes on and around the UCSD campus. Dominguez is co-founder of The Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT), a group that developed Virtual Sit-In technologies in solidarity with the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico. The EDT recently developed the Transborder Immigrant Tool—a GPS cell phone safety net tool for crossing the Mexico/US border—and has been denounced by politicians for this.

There is a long history of academic repression directed at renowned activist-scholars in the US. We need only remember that WEB DuBois was essentially run out of the country for his political work years ago, and in the last few years Norman Finkelstein, Ward Churchill, Ignacio Chapela, Tariq Ramadan and many others have faced firings, threats to tenure, denials of work visas and countless other insults for teaching, writing, and speaking out about social injustices here and globally.

The university is a key site for freedom of expression and political work. It is a cornerstone of a free society and an important site for social movement formation and critical education, which is precisely why we see student groups and faculty members under surveillance.

My conclusion is that the state views animal and Earth liberation activists as “terrorists” because 1) their ideas constitute a threat to the core cultural, political and economic values embodied in the concept of property; 2) they threaten the market imperative to colonize all forms of life; 3) their rejection of hierarchy represents a threat to the broader social order rooted in speciesism, white supremacy, classism and heteropatriarchy; and 4) because, to a large extent, this is not about these movements at all: imposing state repression on these activists sends a strong disciplinary message to the general public to remain complacent.

The general body of law used to label today’s Earth and animal liberation activists as “terrorists” has also been used to do the same to or to oppress indigenous peoples, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ folk, labor rights activists, anarchists, communists, feminists, journalists, peace activists, sex workers and anyone else who dared to think or act in ways that might pose a threat to the social order (see, for example the 1903, 1917, 1918 and 1952 federal immigration laws and the 1798 Enemy Alien Act, among others). And since state repression often involves knowledge production and suppression, university scholars studying or expressing solidarity with freedom movements logically become targets of punishment as well. This includes scholars studying environmental and animal rights movements, and scholars across a range of other fields.

Therefore these movements and scholars have common cause with a large swath of humanity that has also been criminalized, oppressed and excluded. That’s a lot of people and a lot of potential for building freedom movements.

David Naguib Pellow is professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. Further information on Scholars for Academic Justice can be found at SCHOLARSFORACADEMICJUSTICE.ORG

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