by Michael Doyle (Sacramento Bee)
WASHINGTON — A federal courthouse in Boston and a ranch in California’s San Joaquin Valley present competing faces of the animal rights movement.
One side is peaceful. The other, decidedly, is not. Both can feel the weight of the law and the sting of being called a terrorist.
At the giant Harris Ranch, in western Fresno County, investigators are trying to solve the Jan. 8 arson that damaged 14 tractors and several cattle-hauling trailers. Anonymous animal-rights activists claimed responsibility for the fire.
The Harris Ranch arson was clearly a crime, however it happened. But in a new lawsuit, animal advocates with a far different tactical approach contend that Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and other lawmakers went too far the last time Congress addressed animal rights activism, in 2006.
“We’re not saying that one can’t punish arson,” attorney Rachel Meeropol said in an interview Friday, “but that’s not what the (2006) law is about. The law reaches far too broadly.”
Meeropol, who’s with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, is representing Minneapolis resident Sarahjane Blum and four other activists in the lawsuit, filed Dec. 15. It argues that the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act violates the First Amendment rights of those who want to protest how animals are treated.
Blum, for one, founded GourmetCruelty.com, whose advocacy efforts helped persuade the California legislature in 2004 to ban traditional foie gras production. The ban, which blocks the force-feeding of ducks “for the purpose of enlarging the bird’s liver beyond normal size,” takes effect in July.
Under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, animal rights advocates may be prosecuted for actions that cause “the loss of any real or personal property … used by an animal enterprise” and for interstate travel that has the “purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.”
The animal-rights advocates’ lawsuit argues that the broadly worded law could be used to prosecute activities such as picketing, if companies lose business or have to pay for extra security because of it.
Blum “was stunned that the ethical, important work that she had devoted her life to had been turned overnight into terrorism,” the lawsuit says, adding that she now curtails advocacy “that risks prosecution” under the law.
The Justice Department hasn’t filed its response.
Lawmakers, though, say tougher laws and stricter penalties are needed to stop zealous activism that evolves into violence. Feinstein, in supporting the 2006 law, cited attempted bombings that targeted a University of California at Los Angeles primate research center and a San Francisco Bay Area pharmaceutical company.
“This legislation is crucial to respond to the expanded scope of terrorist activity,” Feinstein said during Senate debate.