Animal rights and the erosion of the first amendment AETA, Ag-Gag and why you should care

The federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was challenged in court last week, but the First Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the case. The governor of Idaho signed a bill into law last month that makes it illegal to record audio or video of livestock operations without permission. Animal rights activists are upset about all of these changes in the law, but the effects will be felt by a lot more people than just a small group of activists. It’s not just that activists can’t do what they used to do to expose animal operations; it’s also that the First Amendment right to free speech is being limited.

The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is a federal law that was passed in 2006 while George W. Bush was in office. Basically, the act makes it illegal for anyone to travel in interstate or foreign commerce with the intent to damage or interfere with the operations of an animal enterprise in a way that “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise, or any real or personal property of a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise.” On the surface, the law might not seem too broad. But there’s a problem with how “animal enterprise” is defined. The act says that “animal enterprise” means:

(A) a business or school that uses or sells animals or animal products for food or fibre production, farming, education, research, testing, or to make money;

(B) a zoo, aquarium, animal shelter, pet store, breeder, furrier, circus, rodeo, or other legal animal competition; or

(C) Any fair or other event that aims to advance the arts and sciences of farming.

This means that a “animal enterprise” is basically a grocery store that sells meat. It might be a gas station where they sell milk. Even worse, you or someone you know could be charged under this act for opposing something that has nothing to do with animal rights. Technically, you could be charged under AETA if you stood outside Walmart and protested how workers were treated. Worst of all, if you are found guilty, you could spend up to 20 years in prison, depending on how much damage you did to the economy.

AETA is an illegal restriction on free speech, and it is clear that this affects more than just people who work for animal rights. But the First Circuit Court of Appeals decided not to talk about free speech. Instead, it threw out the Blum v. Holder case because the plaintiffs didn’t have the right to sue. The idea of “standing” in federal court says that the plaintiff must show a “injury-in-fact.” This is so that the court only hears real cases or disagreements. In this case, the federal court said that the plaintiffs’ fears that their right to free speech would be limited were not “objectively reasonable” because a narrow interpretation of AETA would not have any effect on speech. But therein lies a huge problem: even if a federal judge thinks a federal law should be interpreted narrowly, activists and other people have no guarantee that prosecutors or other judges will agree. In this case, the judge made his decision based on how an overly broad and vague law could be interpreted. This law already goes against the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech because it is too broad and too vague.

The new ag-gag law in Idaho and similar laws in other parts of the country limit free speech by making it illegal to record animal rights abuses at livestock operations.

The AETA decision and the passing of the most recent ag-gag bill are both part of a larger trend where citizens’ rights are being taken away. This includes issues like the U.S. government’s growing lack of privacy and the UK’s attempt to censor adult content. The U.S. government’s way of getting around the First Amendment and its policy against censorship is to put animal rights activists on the chopping block. People in general don’t like animal rights activists very much, and Big Agriculture doesn’t love them by any stretch of the imagination. But these laws and decisions will have a big effect, especially when the government decides to go after so-called “spies” or some other type of person instead of animal rights activists. When a government tries to silence its people, that’s when we need to be most aware of how our rights are being taken away and choose to speak up instead.

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