BOSTON -- A group of animal rights activists sued the U.S. government Thursday to challenge the constitutionality of a rarely used law they say treats them like terrorists if they cause a loss in profits for businesses that use or sell animal products.
Five activists represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights filed the lawsuit in federal court in Boston, asking that the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act be struck down as unconstitutional because it has a chilling effect on lawful protest activities.
Staff attorney Rachel Meeropol said the 2006 law has left activists afraid to participate in public protests out of fear they will be prosecuted.
"There are many terms in the law that are not defined, and because of that protesters don't have notice that certain conduct is going to violate the statute and what conduct is protected by the First Amendment," Meeropol said.
"Some of my clients want to engage in simple public protests – perhaps in front of a fur store – to change public opinion about fur," she said. "But they feel restricted from engaging in that clearly lawful activity because under the plain language of the law, if that protest is successful in convincing consumers not to shop at that fur store, they could be charged as terrorists."
The law can be used to prosecute someone for damaging or interfering with the operations of an "animal enterprise" when a person "intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property used by an animal enterprise" or a business connected to an animal enterprise.
Meeropol said courts have interpreted "personal property" to include a loss of profits for the business.
The law also can be used to prosecute anyone who "intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury" through threats, vandalism, harassment or intimidation.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is the only defendant named in the lawsuit. A Justice Department representative did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The law has been rarely used since it was enacted in 2006, but Meeropol said the cases of those who have been prosecuted instilled fear among animal rights activists.
In 2009, four activists were charged for allegedly participating in threatening demonstrations at the homes of University of California scientists who did animal research. Prosecutors also alleged that the four created or distributed a flier listing the professors' home addresses and stating, "animal abusers everywhere beware we know where you live we know where you work we will never back down until you end your abuse." A judge eventually dismissed the charges.
Two other activists were indicted in Utah in 2009 for releasing hundreds of animals from a mink farm. Both pleaded guilty to animal enterprise terrorism and were sentenced to 21 months and 24 months in prison.
A Minnesota graduate student was sentenced to six months in prison for working with other activists in a 2006 raid on a farm where dozens of breeding ferrets were let loose. Scott Ryan DeMuth pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit animal enterprise terrorism under a deal with federal prosecutors in Iowa. Prosecutors said the raid contributed to the ferret farm's closure months later and destroyed the owner's livelihood.
Ryan Shapiro, a longtime animal rights activist from Cambridge who is one of the plaintiffs in the Boston lawsuit, said he no longer conducts undercover filmed investigations of animal treatment on factory farms because he is concerned about possible prosecution.
"One of the ways the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act silences free speech is that if one obtains that footage and then brings that footage to the public about how animals are suffering on factory farms, it might affect the profits of that farm," Shapiro said. "As a result, simply bringing that information to the public and trying to educate individuals is now prosecutable as a terrorist act under the law."