Fighting for Free Speech For All of Us: Blum v. Holder

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By Linda Schade This week in Boston, Sarahjane Blum and her four co-plaintiffs urged the First Circuit Court of Appeals to protect the First Amendment and overturn the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). Defining lawful Constitutionally-protected activities as “terrorism”, AETA has been used to criminalize the political speech of animal rights activists since its passage in 2006. Lloyd Fillion, a DDF activist who was in court on Tuesday to support the plaintiffs reported:

Much of the contest was about what constituted property that could be lost, and whether other sections of the entire act clearly prohibited government prosecution of otherwise protected activity, or whether the appellants were expected to rely on the government’s assertions that they had nothing to fear by way of prosecutions, as long as the activity was speech. One member of the three judge panel asked the government attorney what assurances he could give the appellants that there would not be any prosecutions of 1st amendment protected activities, presuming that lost profits would be counted as real property, and his response was that such an assurance was above his paygrade.

So, the government is saying they won’t prosecute based on First Amendment activity, but they can’t promise.… Plaintiff Ryan Shapiro published a compelling statement on Truthout posing the question, “Is Freeing a Duck Terrorism?”  Indeed, AETA has been used to levy charges against activists for common protest activities. For example, in March, 2006, seven animal rights activists were convicted under the AEPA (AETA predecessor) and sentenced to 12 to 72 months in jail.  The activists (known as the SHAC 7) were not accused of any violence, vandalism or even civil disobedience.  The seven ran a website that reported on legal and illegal protest actions against an animal testing laboratory.  In 2009, four activists were arrested by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and charged with conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism under the AETA (U.S.A. v. Buddenburg).  What were their crimes?  Flyering, chanting, doing internet research, and writing chalk messages on a sidewalk. Defending Dissent Foundation has joined the fight.   Not only does this law single out activists with a particular viewpoint for prosecution, but the language is so broad it could be used to prosecute activism of almost any stripe.  Partnering with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Equal Justice Alliance, we are building a grassroots movement to repeal this unacceptable encroachment on our basic liberties.