When protesters become 'terrorists' - Page 2

Civil liberties defense groups say recent animal activist arrests are bad news for free speech

Bandanas found inside the car were later sampled for DNA, linking them with three of the defendants.

The complaint doesn't indicate whether any of the four defendants struck the researcher's husband or yelled a threat. But that hardly matters. "Another flaw of the AETA is its 'course of conduct' language," Boghosian said. "If one protester commits a single unlawful act at a protest ... but five others were present, all may be charged with engaging in a course of conduct that interferes or attempts to interfere with the operations of an animal enterprise."

Finally, the FBI charges that in July 2008, a stack of flyers listing the home addresses of two UC professors under the headline "murderers and torturers" was discovered at a Santa Cruz cafe. The FBI tapped security camera footage and Internet use logs to link three of the defendants to the stack of flyers.

Several days after the flyers were discovered, a firebombing took place at one of those researchers' homes — but the federal complaint doesn't mention it. When asked if there might be a connection, FBI special agent Joseph Shadler told the Guardian that the complaint speaks for itself.

Several civil liberties groups have been wary of AETA since it was enacted. "The law is so overly broad and so vague that no one knows what's legal and illegal," Odette Wilkins, who is pushing for a repeal of the bill through her organization, the Maryland-based Equal Justice Alliance, told us. "The USA Patriot Act makes it very, very clear what terrorism is. It's anything that causes mass destruction ... or places the entire civilian population in fear. I don't see how people exercising their First Amendment rights ... rises to the level of terrorism. It's ludicrous."

FBI special agent Schadler sees it differently. "As far as the distinction between free speech protected by the Constitution and what we would consider terrorism, whenever somebody's purpose is to cause fear to get their point across, that's terrorism," he told the Guardian. "The definition of terrorism is using threat of violence, or violence, to accomplish a political means. And the threat of violence — when you are actually going out and threatening to hurt people, or causing people to believe that they're going to be hurt, or actually hurting them to get your movement or your political voice heard — then you are committing terrorism."

Lauren Regan, executive director of the Eugene, Ore.-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, helped create Coalition to Abolish the AETA. "We were working on putting together a civil lawsuit simply challenging the constitutionality of the law when the criminal indictments happened," she explained.

Regan has been on the case since a previous law, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, was in place. That statute was upgraded to the AETA in 2006 in the wake of aggressive tactics employed by a radical animal rights group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). "Many felt [the AEPA] was also unnecessary," she told us. "Because there are already statutes for burglary, theft, vandalism, arson [etc]. Any of the crimes that could have fallen within the AEPA were already federal and state crimes."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein cosponsored AETA along with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), saying it would "ensure that eco-terrorists do not impede important medical progress in California." Before the bill passed, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) voiced the lone complaint against it. "I am not for anyone ... damaging another person's property or person. But I am for protecting the First Amendment and not creating a special class of violations for a specific type of protest."

No one else was persuaded. The bill was bundled with other legislation deemed to be noncontroversial then passed by voice vote.