Animal rights activists are overpunished

By By Kiyan Sharifian

By Kiyan Sharifian

Legislation such as the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and consequential state legislation are part of a broader effort to curb “eco-terrorism.” This term refers to a wide group of protests in the name of animal and environmental protections. In practice, legislation such as the AETA has been used to blur constitutionally protected rights to protest, and over-emphasizes the protection for animal enterprise industry members.

Well-meaning text in the bill that provides for the punishment of those who, “intentionally place(s) a person in reasonable fear of the death, or serious bodily injury…by a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation,” becomes convoluted in practice because the test for “reasonable fear of death” can be used to bar any protest.

The test of what is reasonable was applied to a recent animal rights protest in California, which resulted in the arrest of four of 11 student protesters. An FBI press release described the basis for arresting the four students: “on Sunday, January 27, 2008, a group of approximately 11 individuals demonstrated outside the private residences of several University of California Berkeley researchers. At each residence, extremists dressed generally in all black clothing and wearing bandanas to hide their faces marched, chanted, and chalked defamatory comments on the public sidewalks in front of the residences. One of the researchers informed authorities he had been previously harassed and the incident had caused him to fear for his health and safety.”

As intimidating as this may seem, dressing in black, chalking the sidewalk and chanting are hardly grounds for FBI involvement. Although the press release contains more information, the passage above, by itself, is quickly becoming grounds for arrest with implementation of AETA.

The AETA calls for a one-year sentence for actions resulting in $10,000 or less in damages. This one year of incarceration would cost the state, on average, $23,876, according to a 2005 Pew Charitable Trust study. This scale goes up to 20 years for damages in excess of $1,000,000. The cost of imprisoning someone for 20 years is about $477,520. Excessive punishments for non-violent animal rights protests can cost taxpayers a pretty penny.

Given the economic recession, finding punishments that help the community would be more prudent. Community service and restitution are great alternative options for sentencing.

Mink profits are not worth putting people in jail, no matter how much money is lost. Cutting a fence in an act of defiance falls in with the lessons we learned in history class, like the Boston Tea Party, the Free State Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.

What is the end game for both sides? People will not stop eating meat anytime soon. Research on animals has produced valuable results. However, moral authority is a powerful driving force in this country. Breaking the law in order to highlight where it needs to be changed is not a foreign phenomenon in the United States, as controversy over wiretapping and torture have highlighted over the past years.

Reservations on certain types of research and other social practices need to be taken in to account in the formulation of public policy. Because, as history has shown, the moral truths that Americans hold dear will drive political groups to call out all the louder to be heard.

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Kiyan Sharifan