A lawsuit filed today seeks to strike down the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Politicians, industry and law enforcement too long employed the rhetoric and apparatus of national security to counter effective animal advocacy, labeling those who exercise constitutionally protected rights “terrorists.”
It is only by chance that I write this from behind a desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rather than from behind bars in a federal prison. In 2003, I helped coordinate an undercover investigation of notoriously cruel foie gras factory farms. We found ducks crammed inside cages so small they couldn’t stand up, spread their wings, or turn around. As an act of civil disobedience, a group of us openly rescued a number of ducks from this abuse. We also made a short documentary film to educate the public about what was being hidden behind the closed doors of these factory farms. The images we captured played a crucial role in sparking national and international campaigns against foie gras and in the successful 2004 ballot initiative to ban the production of foie gras in California.
From the Boston Tea Party to the suffragettes to the civil rights movement, civil disobedience has a long and proud history in American politics. In this tradition, we did everything openly and took full responsibility for our actions. My fellow investigator Sarahjane Blum and I were eventually convicted of misdemeanor trespass and sentenced to community service. This was a reasonable and acceptable price to pay for bringing to light the realities of factory farming. However, even as we performed our community service, a series of legislative and law enforcement shifts began to make future activism far more dangerous.
In 2004, the FBI designated the animal rights and environmental movements the leading domestic terror threats in the United States. This is despite the fact that neither movement has ever physically injured a single person in their decades of existence in the US, while violence from the far right has proliferated. (Reports document approximately 190 injuries a year and 30 deaths between 2007 and 2012 due to right-wing violence, most of it carried out against ethnic and religious minorities and LGBTQ people.) Then, in 2006, under heavy lobbying from the pharmaceutical, animal agriculture and fur industries, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). The AETA is designer legislation that targets political dissent directed at any business that uses or sells animals or animal products – or any company “connected to” such “animal enterprises.” Simply hurting the profits of these businesses – by, for example, producing and screening a film that inspires people to boycott foie gras or other animal products – qualifies as a terrorist offense. Indeed, a distressingly high number of my closest friends have been convicted as terrorists for engaging in free speech and civil disobedience advocacy on behalf of animals.
As I watched my friends, classmates and roommates hauled off to federal prison, another industry-led attack on animal activists was gaining momentum. In recent years, Big Ag has pushed hard to enact state-level “ag-gag” bills to criminalize undercover investigations of factory farmsand slaughter plants. These laws would put an end to the exposés of stomach-churning violence to animals “raised” for food. The fierce ag-gag debate resumed this month, including right next door in New Hampshire where a proposed bill would severely curtail whistleblowers’ ability to document animal abuse.
Ag-gag bills are based on legislation drafted by the corporate-dominated American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. As with the federal AETA, ALEC’s model “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act” seeks to turn speech critical of animal industries into “terrorism.”
As intended, ag-gag laws and the federal AETA have cast a chill over the animal rights community. Many advocates, myself included, have begun tocensor themselves and refrain from speech that is protected by the First Amendment, or from peaceful civil disobedience in the tradition of some of America’s greatest voices. These fears are well-grounded. Through the Freedom of Information Act, I’ve uncovered documents that reveal explicit FBI consideration of federal AETA charges against those who expose factory farming cruelty.
As a Ph.D. candidate at M.I.T.,my research explores the policing of dissent and the political functioning of national security. I have found that politicians, industry and law enforcement have long employed the rhetoric and apparatus of national security to counter effective animal advocacy. The AETA and ag-gag initiatives stand on the shoulders of a century of similar efforts to marginalize animal protectionists as threats to American security.
It is time to break with this shameful history. That’s why I am in court today as a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights. We seek to have the federal AETA struck down as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. Though I am now a scholar behind a desk, I just as easily could have found myself a “terrorist” behind bars. Corporate power should not dictate the limits of political dissent. It’s time to do away with the undemocratic and unconstitutional AETA.
Ryan Shapiro is a Ph.D. candidate in the program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society (HASTS) at M.I.T.