More than fur would fly when animal rights activists and, perhaps, environmental groups mount protests in New York, under a new law proposed by an upstate legislator: Protesters would be considered “terrorists.”
New York is one of several states currently considering legislation that could define certain animal rights and environmental groups as terrorist organizations. The sponsor of the bill, Assembly Member Richard Smith, a Democrat from the Buffalo suburb of Blasdell, says it was written to curtail the activities of extremists who “bomb research labs and torch ski camps.” Opponents of the bill point out that much of the wording of bill A4884 (and a companion bill in the state senate) was lifted directly from language created by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative D.C. lobby.
ALEC’s model legislation, drawn up by its “Homeland Security Working Group,” is called the Animal and Ecological Terrorist Act, and it ostensibly focuses solely on groups like Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front, which have attacked homes and development projects that threatened the habitat of several species. But more mainstream groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), are also targeted by ALEC as a “threat,” and the bill would back that up with severe action.
For activists, the danger lies in how A4884 defines “terrorist” organizations, as “any association, organization, entity, coalition, or combination of two or more persons with the primary or incidental purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity through intimidation, coercion, fear, or other means.” Activist groups fear that lawful dissent, such as demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and leafleting, might fall into any one of those categories, particularly the catchall phrase “other means.” The bill also seeks to prohibit people from gathering photographic or videotaped evidence of illegal or harmful activities, effectively shutting down the camcorders and other tools used by 21st-century protesters. Additionally, the bill calls for the creation of a state-run website where people convicted of “eco-terrorism or animal-rights terrorism” would be identified with photographs and stigmatized, much as states do with child molesters.
Some version of the bill may make it to the general assembly floor, perhaps not until 2004, but PETA takes it seriously. “There are already numerous laws on the books to prosecute activists who cross the line, like trespassing, breaking and entering, and burglary,” says PETA general counsel Jeffrey Kerr. “This bill is clearly aimed at stifling opposition to animal and environmental exploitation by companies that make a living from it.”
Assemblyman Smith insists that the bill doesn’t threaten First Amendment rights. “My bill in no way aims to stop picketing or leafleting,” he says, “but there are some radicals out there who consistently brag that they’ve started fires and destroyed property, and they’ve got to be penalized. Those radicals are the ones I’m looking for.”
Other states considering the legislation are Ohio, Oregon, Missouri, and Pennsylvania. Oklahoma enacted such a bill last spring, but similar legislation introduced in Texas recently died in committee. In New York, ALEC established a beachhead through the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, one of several powerful pro-hunting groups active in upstate areas. ALEC, says spokesman Bob Adams, talked about the legislation with the hunting lobby, and Smith says the hunters talked about it with him.
Kerr and other lawyers contend that the animal- and eco-rights movements already are in the crosshairs of the Bush administration. At the moment all eyes are on Greenpeace, which ran afoul of the Department of Justice last year after two activists boarded a boat carrying wood that Greenpeace says was illegally exported from the Amazon and hung banners over the side that read “President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging.” For that act, Greenpeace has been charged with violating an obscure and ancient “sailormongering” law that prohibits unauthorized persons from boarding a boat before it’s moored.
And when it comes to proposed laws like the one being considered in New York, ALEC has the administration’s ear. Its annual meeting this past July in D.C. drew such speakers as Vice President Dick Cheney and Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge. The group gave Cheney its Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award, praising him for his “commitment” to “individual liberty.” Cheney told the gathering of more than 2,000 legislators and others, “We will not wait in false comfort while terrorists plot against innocent Americans. We will not permit outlaw states and terror groups to join forces in a deadly alliance that could threaten the lives of millions of Americans.”