Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act Does Not Threaten Activism Commentary
Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act Does Not Threaten Activism
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JURIST Guest Columnist Dario Ringach, Professor of Neurobiology and Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was enacted to protect individuals from extremists who adopt methods of violence and true threats, rather than to threaten activism or infringe on activists’ First Amendment rights…

Free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and the open exchange of ideas is crucial to social progress. We accept that protected speech can sometimes turn ugly, provoke social unrest and include acts of civil disobedience.

It is equally evident that organized harassment, intimidation, threats and firebombs directed at those one disagrees with, even if it is on core moral issues, are not protected forms of speech. Unfortunately, such methods are increasingly being adopted by a small group of animal rights extremists whose intent is to achieve their goals “by all means necessary” — a threat that must be taken seriously.

These activists use the Internet to disseminate personal information about their would-be “targets,” who include not only researchers but also university students. Many use over-the-top rhetoric calculated to incite violence while giving themselves a measure of plausible deniability. Others focus their campaigns of hate against their targets’ families, including their children. Some have shown up at their targets’ front doors at night, wearing ski-masks, banging on windows and frightening children inside with chants like “we know where you sleep at night” and “burn, baby burn.”

These forms of “activism” are not intended to express a view on a topic, or to educate the public about a specific social goal, or to present reasoned arguments in the court of public opinion about an ongoing moral dispute. These acts have one simple aim, to use violence, intimidation and threats to force others to conform to their views. By all reasonable definitions, such acts are a form of “terrorism.”

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was enacted to punish actions that fall within the “true threats” exception of the First Amendment. It is not intended to infringe on anyone’s speech. This was made clear by Senator Dianne Feinstein:

Passage of this act helps put an end to the deplorable actions of animal rights extremists and helps to ensure that eco-terrorists do not impede important medical progress in California and across the country. We need the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act to fight the evolving tactics used by animal rights extremists, including the latest trend of targeting any business and associate working with animal research facilities.

According to Senator James Inhofe:

With unanimous support in both the House and the Senate, Congress has now provided law enforcement the tools they need to adequately combat radical animal rights extremists who commit violent acts against innocent people because they work with animals, … This bill is an important step in the effort to combat animal rights extremists’ increasingly violent tactics. We can no longer tolerate criminally based activism regardless of the cause it allegedly advances. This is terrorism and must be stopped.

The AETA exempts actions protected under the First Amendment through a rule of construction stating that “nothing in this section shall be construed (1) to prohibit any expressive conduct (including peaceful picketing or other peaceful demonstration) protected from legal prohibition by the First Amendment … [or] (2) to create new remedies for interference with activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution, regardless of the point of view expressed, or to limit any existing legal remedies for such interference.”

Animal rights activists have complained that they are afraid that if they engage in legal activities that cause economic damage they may be in violation of the act. However, the act defines “economic damage” to exclude “any lawful economic disruption (including a lawful boycott) that results from lawful public, governmental, or business reaction to the disclosure of information about an animal enterprise.” One constitutional scholar has cogently stated that “the sensible interpretation of the statute is one that protects speech and focuses only on non-speech conduct or on true threats.”

While we await the legal arguments of Blum v. Holder to unfold in the US District Court in the District of Massachusetts. Whatever the eventual outcome, one thing is clear — far too many of those interested in striking down the AETA are in the habit of “understanding” or silently approving the violence of extremists within their movement rather than condemning it.

The simple truth is that the AETA does not threaten activism; it threatens terrorism.

Dario Ringach is a Professor of Neurobiology and Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He received the AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award in 2011 for his efforts to convey the importance of animal research to the public. He and his family, along many of his colleagues at the University of California and elsewhere, have been the target of animal rights extremists. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the University of California.

Suggested citation: Dario Ringach, Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act Does Not Threaten Activism, JURIST – Hotline, Feb. 28, 2012,

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