Last week's decision by the United States Supreme Court, affirming the rights of the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church to spew hatred at military funerals, was greeted as a victory for free speech by nearly everyone across the political spectrum.
That celebration turned out to be short-lived and wholly premature.
On March 7, 2011, the same justices decided to let a far more important free speech case die a quiet, unseen death by refusing to hear it. You wouldn't know this from the news -- members of the major media were too busy with Charlie Sheen, one supposes. Indeed, the only reporter to cover the event was courageous independent journalist Will Potter.
The case in question: the United States of America vs. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, Inc. et al, where six defendants and a non-profit corporation were convicted of animal enterprise terrorism for running a protest campaign against the largest animal testing laboratory in the world, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), commencing in 2001. This was no case of mere philosophical or abstract outrage -- HLS had been fined $50,000 by the USDA for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act for cruelty to animals in its New Jersey facility in 1998.
Even though the SHAC defendants did nothing but call for and participate in legal protests against the company and anyone doing business with them, sporadic instances of vandalism by unknown persons against some of the protest targets caused the six activists spearheading the campaign against HLS to be charged with inciting "terrorism." All were found guilty in a secret and speedy 2006 trial from which all media were barred.
If this all sounds unbelievable, it should. But in our country, special exemptions to free speech have been carved to protect corporations that use animals. These exemptions include the right to be shielded from protests and boycotts through the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which makes any interference with the operation of an animal enterprise that causes sufficient financial losses an act of terrorism. In introducing the law, its sponsors assured members of Congress that it would never be used to target mere speech. Of course, that is exactly what it is being used for.
These are not only federal legal matters. In California, calling for home protests against specific animal researchers is illegal since 2008. In Florida, a law pending this year would make it a felony to photograph or videotape "legitimate agriculture operations" without the owner's consent.
Is it because activist campaigns that expose cruelty to animals behind carefully closed doors tend to be very effective? The SHAC protests against HLS and its affiliates caused some of the world's largest corporations to sever ties to the company, almost bankrupting the multinational giant. One wonders if without such dramatic results, any prosecution would've taken place at all.
On March 7, by denying to hear the appeal in the SHAC case, the Supreme Court effectively affirmed the 2006 verdict, that engaging in legal, First Amendment-protected activity, when it affects the bottom lines of major corporations, is now not only illegal, but a certified act of terrorism.
Considering that the Supreme Court previously ruled that all corporate "persons," unlike real persons, are entitled to make whatever unlimited monetary contributions they wish to political candidates, perhaps we should not have been surprised.
But make no mistake. The Court's seeming affirmations of free speech, applied to the bigotry and hate-mongering of pastor Phelps were a mere comforting illusion. Real history, as they say, is made at night.
Mikko Alanne is a screenwriter and documentary filmmaker currently producing a film about the SHAC case.
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