In response to threats and violence towards research facilities and individuals, Congress enacted the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) in November 2006. The legislation, which received broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, strengthened the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 by expanding the coverage of the law to include individuals and their families, and increased the penalties for violations.
The AETA is a critical tool for law enforcement, as it is the only federal law specifically designed to protect individuals involved in research from threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment and intimidation that place them in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury. Since its enactment in 2006, the frequency and severity of illegal actions in the U.S. has decreased significantly.
However, animal rights activists intent on ending the responsible use of animals in research have challenged the AETA in court, alleging that the law prohibits First Amendment-protected activities and speech. Every court that has reviewed the AETA has rejected this argument. In fact, the AETA was specifically drafted to ensure First Amendment-protected activities and speech are protected.
Below is a summary of the challenges to the law:
United States v. Johnson, et al.
On July 8, 2014, two animal rights extremists, Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang, were indicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) for allegedly releasing mink from a fur farm in Illinois and conspiring to release foxes from another farm in Illinois. The two previously pleaded guilty to state charges of “possession of burglary tools” after wire cutters and other burglary tools were found during a traffic stop.
On November 6, 2014, the two extremists represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Federal Defender Program in Chicago, filed a Motion to Dismiss the case arguing that the AETA is unconstitutional. The Motion to Dismiss alleges that the AETA violates the First Amendment by criminalizing protected speech, is unconstitutionally vague and violates due process. This case is currently ongoing.
Blum v. Holder
Five animal rights activists, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed suit in U.S. District Court in late 2011 challenging the constitutionality of the AETA. On March 18, 2013, the suit was dismissed because activists lacked standing to challenge the law. The activists’ challenge rested on their asserted fear of prosecution for engaging in First Amendment-protected activities, such as protesting or letter-writing campaigns. The District Court determined that lawful advocacy is not prohibited by the AETA and found the activists had no standing to challenge the constitutionality of the law, since they failed to indicate an “intention to engage in any activity ‘that could reasonably be construed’ to fall within the statute.” The federal appeals court upheld that ruling and the Supreme Court denied the activists’ petition to review the case.
United States v. Buddenberg
Four animal rights activists were arrested by FBI agents on February 19, 2009 in connection with a series of threatening incidents involving University of California researchers. According to a motion filed by the government, “the criminal complaint alleges, and the indictment charges, that between October 2007 and July 2008, the defendants engaged in repeated protests, including acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, threats, and intimidation at numerous biomedical researchers’ homes in the East Bay and in Santa Cruz for the very explicitly stated purpose of causing the researchers to abandon laboratory testing on animals.” The activists argued that the law was unconstitutional; however, the court disagreed held that the challenged provisions of the AETA were not unconstitutional. The charges were eventually dismissed due to lack of specificity in the indictment.
United States v. Fullmer
On October 14, 2009, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the convictions of six animal rights extremists and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, Inc. (SHAC) for conspiring to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), and unanimously held that the law was constitutional. The extremists petitioned the Supreme Court for review, but the court refused to hear the case. The case marked the first time a federal appellate court had considered the constitutionality of the AEPA.