Two animal rights activists were in court today to ask a federal judge to dismiss terrorism charges against them. Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang are alleged to have freed thousands of animals from Midwestern fur farms. The activists were indicted under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which their attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights’ Rachel Meeropol, told the court is unconstitutional and should be struck down. The courtroom was packed with Johnson and Lang’s supporters who oppose the AETA. “The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is a poorly disguised attempt to chill legitimate advocacy by an unpopular group of activists,” said CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol, who argued today. “Liberating animals is not terrorism.”
Meeropol noted that the government itself admitted that freeing animals is not properly characterized as “terrorism” when it insisted in court filings that government attorneys “will not refer to the defendants as terrorists at trial or in any other context.” Yet, argued Meeropol, if found guilty of freeing animals, the defendants will nonetheless be convicted “terrorists” for life: they could be placed in highly restrictive prison conditions as a result, and they might have to disclose the nature of their convictions to employers, academic institutions, and others in the future. CCR also challenged the law as violating the First Amendment. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act punishes causing damage or loss to a business or other institution that sells animals or animal products. This includes both lost profits caused by criminal acts and loss caused by boycotts, picketing, and other constitutionally-protected activity, thus criminalizing a broad swath of First Amendment advocacy. Finally, Meeropol argued that the law invites discriminatory enforcement because it federalizes almost every property crime against almost every business in the country, from an animal testing lab to a corner convenience store that sells meat and dairy products. Despite its broad reach, only animal rights activists have ever been charged under the law. Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang were indicted under the AETA in July for allegedly releasing mink and foxes from two rural Illinois fur farms. They previously faced state charges of “possession of burglary tools” after a police search during a traffic stop turned up items such as wire cutters. Both men pleaded guilty to the state charges; Mr. Lang was sentenced to 170 days in prison and Mr. Johnson to 30 months. They face up to 10 years in federal prison if convicted of the AETA charges. Michael Deutsch of the People’s Law Office; Lillian McCartin; and Geoffrey Meyer of the Federal Defender Program in Chicago are co-counsel in the case. For more information about the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act see here. For more information on the case, visit CCR’s case page, U.S. v. Johnson.