The Animal Enterprises Terrorism Act (AETA) is a law that many people don’t know exists. Nevertheless, the law raises some substantial constitutional concerns. The AETA makes it a crime for anyone to use force, violence, and threats “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” An animal enterprise is any setting that involves animals — a pharmaceutical company, a medical laboratory, a university, or even a retail pet store. Primarily, what’s at stake is an individual’s right, under the First Amendment, to free speech. While it’s important to note that the right to free speech is not absolute, the judicial constraints on speech are very limited (i.e., fighting words), and any restrictions based on viewpoint (content-based) are not tolerated. So, unless the speech of an individual presents a “clear and imminent” danger, the speech should still fall within the protection of the First Amendment.
Of course, there are two sides to every story, and proponents of the AETA will bring up that, in addition to categories of speech that are unprotected, the Court has established that “time, place, and manner” restrictions on expression may sometimes be warranted. For example, protests outside medical clinics have some lawful restrictions placed upon them, as does approaching people and distributing leaflets inside airports. Restrictions also may be initiated through legislature: just last month, Washington D.C.’s City Council deemed it unlawful for protestors outside private residences to wear masks and to conduct protests after 10pm. While these restrictions may seem quite reasonable, the vagueness of the AETA, unfortunately, creates the possibility of its use against citizens who are simply exercising their right to voice dissent, without their ever being directly involved in carrying out activities that cause economic damage or disruption. And the penalties of being labeled a “domestic terrorist” can be severe.
In the seminal case United States v. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (2006), seven individuals were charged with violating the AEPA (at the time, still titled the Animal Enterprises Protection Act) and some of them received long prison sentences because of the enhanced charge. In addition to First Amendment concerns raised by the law, concern that the law violates the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment remains a hot topic of debate. While it is undeniably important to protect businesses, their employees, and affiliates, the right to express alternative viewpoints is a cornerstone of our democracy. Even more tragic than any potential economic disruption would be the silencing — out of fear of prosecution — of those who would otherwise lend their voices to the animals that so desperately need our help.
For a comprehensive look at this law, check out the book Muzzling a Movement, by Dara Lovitz.