researchers support the legislation, despite free-speech concerns.
but rarely invoked US law intended to protect researchers from violent and
threatening animal-rights activists has stumbled out of the starting gate:
last week, a judge dismissed the first prosecution under the law. The decision
comes on top of evidence that the legislation has done little to deter illegal
incidents, and concerns that it risks restricting free speech.
researchers who have been targeted by activists mostly support the law —
and wish that it would be enforced more often and more aggressively. "You
could present this as a setback," says John Ngai, a neuroscientist
at the University of California, Berkeley, and the university's spokesman
on animal research issues. "But this is one step in a lengthy process.
The wheels of justice grind really slowly."
2008 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which replaces a less powerful
statute, is designed to help end campaigns of harassment against academic
scientists. It outlaws property damages at universities and threats that
produce a 'reasonable fear' of death or injury for researchers or their
law's first major test came in February 2009, when four animal-rights activists
— Adriana Stumpo, Nathan Pope, Joseph Buddenberg and Maryam Khajavi
— were arrested and later indicted under the AETA, for incidents at
the homes of several University of California system researchers in 2007
and 2008. The group, with other protesters, wore bandanas over their faces
and wrote messages such as "Stop the Torture", "Bird Killer"
and "Murder for Scientific Lies" on the pavement with blue and
purple chalk, according to police reports. The protesters allegedly burst
through a researcher's door and one of them hit her husband with an object.
on 12 July, a federal judge dismissed the indictment for being too vague:
prosecutors did not say which of the activists' alleged actions violated
the law. However, prosecutors are free to re-indict if they can show how
particular actions crossed the line.
classing animal-activist crimes as 'terrorism', the statute has succeeded
in bringing more law-enforcement resources to bear on the issue, especially
from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, says Frankie Trull, president
of the pro-animal-research National Association for Biomedical Research
(NABR) in Washington DC. Yet Trull has been disappointed with the results
so far. Several dangerous crimes remain unsolved, including the firebombing
of a house and car belonging to researchers in Santa Cruz, California, in
2008, and the March 2009 torching of a car belonging to David Jentsch, a
neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). "Why
aren't they arresting these guys?" asks Trull. "It is hard to
believe that these extremists are so sophisticated that they don't leave
are also few signs that the law has been a deterrent. The number of illegal
incidents fluctuates wildly (see 'Wrongs in the name of animal rights'),
and analyses by groups on both sides of the issue — the NABR and the
activist-sympathizing Bite Back magazine — show no clear effect on
the number or nature of attacks since the AETA was passed.
law-enforcement efforts against animal rights-related crimes in the past
decade rely on other legislation. In California, which sees the bulk of
US attacks, the state's Researcher Protection Act of 2008 has made it a
misdemeanour to publish the names and locations of researchers to encourage
crimes against them. Under other state laws, UCLA has been granted injunctions
that ban several activists from approaching researchers' homes. Activists
have also been successfully pursued under anti-stalking laws.
strong language of the AETA — which in the Berkeley case raises freedom
of speech issues, the judge warned — could be making prosecutors wary
of using it. Lawyers for the defendants say that much of the activists'
activity — chalking, chanting and leafleting — should be considered
protected 'speech', and therefore be exempt from restriction. According
to Michael Macleod-Ball, chief legislative counsel of the New York-based
American Civil Liberties Union, "Prosecutors need to be careful about
how they use this, because the language in the statute is a little squishy."
who have been the target of attacks don't want prosecutors to give up yet.
Jentsch endured lengthy protests at his home after the burning of his car.
He thinks that the AETA could deter protesters who are "actively seeking
the boundary of protected speech" to harm researchers without getting
arrested. But this won't happen until there are more AETA arrests. "I
don't see that the AETA has really affected activists yet," says Jentsch.
"It has got to be used to aggressively pursue people who have pushed
the bounds of behaviour."
version of this story incorrectly implied that the incidents for which animal
rights activists were arrested involved only researchers at the University
of California, Berkeley. In fact, researchers at the University of California,
Santa Cruz, were also targeted.