When free speech becomes ‘terrorism’

Activism for animal rights should be protected as free speech, not equated with heinous crimes

February 10, 2014 12:45PM ET
PETA activists dressed as a monkeys display placards from inside cages during a demonstration in Washington, DC, on February 2, 2010.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

A few years ago, I moved to a rural area. During hunting season I am routinely awakened at sunrise by the sound of gunshots; sometimes I spring out of bed startled because the gunfire seems too close to my house. In my groggy state, I often think about people around the world who live in areas that are racked by war, those who must cope with not just the regular sound of gunfire but also a constant military presence, those who are forced to shield themselves and their loved ones from the blasts of explosives, and communities that have to worry about drone strikes. Living under those conditions must be absolutely terrifying.

Because there is no nonprejudicial, rational basis for caring only about the pain and suffering of humans while ignoring the like pain and suffering of other animals who can experience those feelings, when I hear shots fired, I also think of the birds and animals who are targets.

Other animals feel pain when they are injured, and social animals experience distress when their loved ones are harmed or killed. The social group dynamics can be altered in devastating ways. Infants may be left in terror if their mother is shot; flocks may have trouble navigating after their leaders are killed. And when hunters shoot, they usually don’t know the social role that their target occupies, so have no idea about the distress they may be causing members of their victim’s family and community.

For domestic animals in laboratories and factory farms, the suffering, distress and terror are worse — rats, mice, birds, rabbits, cats, dogs and primates used in research and cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys and lambs raised to be slaughtered for food spend every day under the control of others in conditions that are stressful at best and agonizing at worst. 

Animal advocates want to bring about social change to end the terror and suffering of other animals. Yet some of them are being labeled terrorists for speaking out against this suffering. In fact, federal law supports this view. Businesses that use animals, known as animal enterprises, have been protected since 2006 by Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (or the AETA, formerly known as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act). Even though no bodily harm has ever been caused by direct-action protests on behalf of animals, the law labels those who engage in certain types of protests “terrorists.” 

Criminalizing activities that raise awareness of the suffering of animals creates a chilling effect on the free expression of political ideas.

Of course, animal advocates often resort to outrageous behavior — going naked rather than wearing fur or covering themselves in bloodied plastic wrap outside butcher shops. Sometimes the protests are amusing, sometimes they are annoying, and occasionally they can disrupt business as usual. Protests that aim to cause financial damage to corporations that experiment on animals or produce animals for food or fur now fall under the AETA.

The law criminalizes not just the destruction of property (which is also covered under vandalism laws) but also conspiring to do damage, even if no action is taken. It also criminalizes protest that involves threats, trespassing, harassment or intimidation. Activists have been arrested, charged with animal-enterprise terrorism and imprisoned for trespassing on the front yards of animal experimenters’ houses while chanting slogans, for distributing protest fliers and even for using the Internet to find information on researchers or post information about protests.

The key question is, why should these activities, most of which should be protected forms of free speech, be branded as terrorism?

There are many ways of defining terrorism, all of which are contested. Most definitions include “causing terror or intimidation,” but one isn’t a terrorist simply for causing terror in others. The hunters that wake me up in terror and who leave their victim’s family in terror aren’t considered terrorists. The abusive boyfriend who harasses his estranged girlfriend isn’t called a terrorist, even when he violates a protective order. People can engage in criminal activity, and some animal activists do that when they break and enter, vandalize, destroy or steal property. (Rescued animals are considered property under the law.) These are already criminal acts; to add a charge of terrorism to the activity or suspected activity is a way of censoring or eliminating forms of speech and communication that some parties don’t like. Such legislation should be frowned upon in a democracy. Criminalizing activities that raise awareness of the suffering of animals creates a chilling effect on the free expression of political ideas.

The Center for Constitutional Rights has challenged the legality of the AETA, arguing that the law criminalizes First Amendment–protected speech and activities such as protests, boycotts, picketing and whistle-blowing. There are five longtime animal activists who are plaintiffs in the case. All of them claim that the AETA has altered their activism. It has had a chilling and silencing effect on many other activists who would organize to protest the exploitation and terror that billions of other animals suffer annually. 

When philosopher John Stuart Mill first argued for the value of free speech in his classic work “On Liberty,” he established the vital role it plays in correcting social mistakes — errors that may not be seen as such by the majority. Social beliefs and practices are not infallible, and working toward social justice requires the courageous protest by a minority to help the majority gain the wisdom necessary to change. Criminalizing social activity that leads to crucial discussions about how to minimize suffering and terror — and labeling that activity a form of terrorism — is contrary to the values necessary for a healthy democracy. 

Lori Gruen is professor and chair of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. She is the author of the new book "Entangled Empathy:  An Alternative Ethic for our Relationships with Animals."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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