On Tuesday a federal judge threw out a lawsuit that challenged the constitutionality of the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), without addressing the central Freedom of Speech question in the case.
The lawsuit, Blum vs. Holder, was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of five animal rights activists who, according to a recent press release, say that the language of the 2006 law is so "overbroad that it criminalizes protected First Amendment speech."
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) specifically targets animal rights activists by labeling as an act of "terrorism" any kind of "obstruction" for the purpose of "damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise."
Critics charge that AETA is written so broadly, "it could turn a successful labor protest at Wal-Mart, which sells animal products, into an act of domestic terrorism," with non-violent protesters charged under the law facing up to twenty years in prison—depending on the amount of profit loss that results from their actions.
Judge Joseph Tauro ruled that the men and women suing the government "did not have standing to bring the case and therefore the case could not go forward," writes CCR.
However, the ruling was based on a narrow interpretation of the law which only criminalizes property destruction and threats "despite the law’s broad prohibition on causing an animal enterprise any loss of property, which is generally understood to include the loss of profit."
“While the judge’s narrow reading of the statute would solve some of its many constitutional flaws," said CCR Senior Staff Attorney and lead counsel Rachel Meeropol, "our clients and other activists have no guarantee that prosecutors, or even other judges, will agree. They will continue to be chilled from speaking out on important issues of public concern until this law is struck down.”
The plaintiffs—who CCR says "have long histories of participating in peaceful protests and animal rights advocacy"—argued that the threat of prosecution as terrorists "has led them to limit or even cease their lawful advocacy."
“Since the passage of the AETA, I no longer feel free to speak my mind on the issues closest to my heart out of fear that my advocacy could be prosecuted as terrorism,” said plaintiff Sarahjane Blum. “How can I continue my activism if I cannot even challenge the constitutionality of the law that is chilling my speech?”
In a 2011 analysis of the law, leading animal rights journalist Will Potter writes, "The objective of animal industry groups, corporations, and the politicians that represent them is not to merely prevent vandalism and theft: it is to neutralize a threat to their profits and their power. To silence dissent."
Attorneys say they will appeal the dismissal.