When protesters become 'terrorists'

Civil liberties defense groups say recent animal activist arrests are bad news for free speech
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rebeccab@sfbg.com

When does passionate protest become a terrorist threat? Is it when activists choose to target someone's house, or when the subject of the protest feels scared? Why single out animal rights activists for special treatment? And if the definition of terrorism is expanded for them, what group is next in these turbulent times?

These are the questions being raised by the federal prosecution of four local animal rights activists. Joseph Buddenberg, Maryam Khajavi, Nathan Pope, and Adriana Stumpo pleaded not guilty March 19 to charges of using threats and violence to interfere with University of California animal researchers, in violation of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA).

A coalition of civil liberties defense groups have come to their defense, arguing that the law is unconstitutional and that the activists were merely exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly.

AETA specifically protects research institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and other businesses that use animals from individuals who "interfere with" their operations. Anyone using threats, vandalism, property damage, trespassing, harassment, or intimidation to cause someone connected with an animal enterprise to have "reasonable fear of death or bodily injury" can be tried under the law. But critics say the statute is over-broad, arguing that legal activity like boycotts can be construed as a form of interfering with a business' operations.

"In its abstract form, and now with these arrests, the AETA is a full frontal assault by the U.S. government on the First Amendment," says San Francisco-based attorney Ben Rosenfeld, a member of the National Lawyers Guild. "Everybody, whether they identify with animal rights causes or not, ought to be very alarmed."

According to an FBI affidavit filed by special agent Lisa Shaffer, the activists took part in actions targeting UC researchers who conduct experiments on animals. They didn't free caged animals, torch laboratories, or slash tires. Instead the defendants were caught picketing, chanting, and creating flyers. And while the complaint cites an alleged assault, it never states that any of the four defendants was responsible. Yet they each face up to five years in prison.

In October 2007, the complaint alleges, the defendants joined a group of protesters outside a UC researcher's home in El Cerrito where they marched, chanted things like "vivisectors go to hell!" and rang the doorbell. The second incident took place in January 2008, when a group of about a dozen people "wearing bandanas over their nose and mouth" allegedly drove to a number of researchers' homes in the East Bay. They "marched, chanted, and chalked defamatory comments on the public sidewalks in front of the residences."

The complaint says UC researchers felt harassed, intimidated, and terrified. Heidi Boghosian, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild in New York City, says AETA is flawed in that prosecutions are based on the targets' reactions, not the protesters' intent. "Basing prosecutions on the subjective feelings of individuals to whom no harm was inflicted undermines the foundation of criminal law, which punishes those who commit crimes with the intent to do so," Boghosian told us. "Demonstrating — even noisy, angry demonstrating that may be uncomfortable to others — is still protected under the First Amendment."

During the third incident, six bandana-clad protesters allegedly approached the home of a UC Santa Cruz researcher. Her husband heard banging on the glass pane of the door, opened it, and then "struggled with one individual and was hit with a dark, firm object," according to the complaint. The protesters dispersed, and one allegedly yelled, "We're gonna get you!" Santa Cruz police later seized a vehicle belonging to one of the activists.