When protesters become 'terrorists' - Page 3

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

The American Civil Liberties Union didn't oppose it after an amendment was added guaranteeing that it wouldn't restrict First Amendment rights. The ACLU declined to comment for this story.

Regan says broadening the definition of terrorism can stifle important campaigns. She points to the example of a widely publicized video released by the Humane Society last year that showed disturbing footage of downed cows at a beef processing facility. Though it spurred one of the largest beef recalls in history (and saved school kids from consuming an unsafe meat product), the cameraperson could be tried as a terrorist under the AETA, Regan says, because it was necessary to trespass to shoot the film.

She also criticizes the FBI's excessive use of paid informants. "This has happened across the country — if someone posts a vegan potluck, the FBI is showing up to see who's there and what they're doing," she says. Between 1993 and 2003, the FBI's counterterrorism division increased 224 percent, according to its Web site.

While advocates are quick to point out that there are no documented deaths associated with animal rights activism, the movement has a history of employing firebombs, threatening phone calls, and other creepy tactics in pressing to end animal cruelty — a trend that led to the passage of the domestic terrorism bill.

"The AETA has backfired, causing an increase in underground activism," says Los Angeles-based activist Jerry Vlasak, whose inflammatory language against animal researchers was quoted extensively during the 2006 Congressional hearing on AETA. Vlasak is a media contact for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which operates a Web site featuring anonymous "communiqués" sent in by clandestine activists. In a posting dated March 6, a group called the Animal Liberation Brigade takes credit for burning the car of a Los Angeles primate researcher. "We will come for you when you least expect it and do a lot more damanage [sic] than to your property," the message reads. "Where ever you go and what ever you do we'll be watching you as long as you continue to do your disgusting experiments on monkeys. And a special message for the FBI, the more legit activists you fuck with the more it inspires us since wer're [sic] the people whom you least suspect and when we hit we hit hard."

Will Potter, a Washington, D.C.journalist who runs a Web site called Green Is The New Red, testified before Congress prior to the passage of the AETA, arguing that the law would not deter underground activists. Instead he predicts it will have a chilling effect on protests staged in broad daylight. "This legislation will ... risk painting legal activity and nonviolent civil disobedience with the same broad brush as illegal activists," he said.

That, says Rosenfeld, is precisely what's happened. "The whole underpinning of a democratic society is that it's rights-based, and government power is limited and checked by law," he says. "Here we have a complete perversion of that process. The government gives itself this over-broad, sweeping power to go after anyone it wants and then seeks to reassure people that it will only use those laws against the real bad guys."