Anti-factory Farm Activists Under Fire
State Legislatures Launch ALEC-backed Attack on Anti-factory Farm and Animal Rights Campaigners
by Bill Berkowitz
June 7, 2003
Under the guise of protecting their states against "eco-terrorism," a number of anti-environmental and pro-agribusiness legislators have passed and/or are considering legislation making it illegal for animal rights activists to uncover and protest animal abuse at corporate-run factory farms.
If HB 433 passes and is signed into law in Texas, family farm and animal rights activists could face jail time and a fine of up to $10,000 for taking pictures of penned-up animals on factory farms, writing a check to a group involved in peaceful protests or civil disobedience against corporate farms, or paying membership dues to an environmental organization involved in a corporate campaign.
Recently the nation was mesmerized by the sight of Democratic Party state legislators in Texas seeking refuge across the border in Oklahoma in order to stop a lopsided redistricting scheme orchestrated by Tom DeLay. While HB 433 is not nearly as media-mesmerizing as redistricting legislation, it is part of a dangerous and growing trend that criminalizes the non-violent and legal activities of animal rights and family farm activists.
HB 433 contains a section called "Animal Rights and Ecological Terrorism," which amends Chapter 28 of the state's penal code. The bill "outlines penalties against criminal behavior by animal rights protestors," reports the Environmental News Service (EFN). Some critics are concerned that the legislation "would outlaw all environmental advocacy."
Authored by Representative Ray Allen of Grande Prairie, HB 433 amends the state's penal code whose prohibited offenses already include vandalism, arson, breaking and entering, theft of an animal or natural resource, and trespassing. The Texas American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is concerned that if passed and signed into law, HB 433 would make it a Class B misdemeanor to take photographs or to videotape in an animal or natural resource facility.
Those who donate money to groups that sponsor peaceful civil disobedience could also be guilty of "ecological terrorism." EFN also reports that the bill penalizes "'any lawful activity involving the use of a natural resource with an economic value,' including mining, foresting, harvesting, or processing natural resources, or obstructing a lab being used for research on animals, a circus, rodeo or zoo, if it is done with 'political motivation,' or by someone 'acting on behalf of an animal rights or ecological terrorist organization.'"
According to the bill, "political motivation" is defined as "intent to influence a governmental entity or the public to take a specific political action." The bill defines an "animal rights or ecological terrorist organization" as "two or more persons organized for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any person from participating in an activity involving animals or an activity involving natural resources."
The Texas ACLU: "The bill does not apply to exactly the same behaviors (like obstructing the use of a facility) conducted by a wide range of other political organizations, like peace protestors or Pro-Life groups. By singling out people who protest on environmental and animal rights issues, this bill violates their freedom of speech and their 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law."
"We could be considered an eco-terrorist organization under this bill because what we do is try to advocate for positive change at state levels," Julian Zelazny, director of the State Environment Resource Center (SERC) in Madison, Wisconsin, told EFN.
Zelazny said that the language in the bill was "pretty cut and dried" in terms of eliminating certain environmental activities. "If you look at the language, all you need are two people to work in opposition to some environmental or animal use action, and all they need to be doing is trying to change people's minds or a government decision to be labeled eco-terrorists."
Behind many of the bills being introduced across the country is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Mike Flynn, director of policy for the Arlington, Virginia-based organization, told ENS that he thought the language was appropriate and that it was a response to a growing problem that needs its own category of legislation. ALEC, a corporate sponsored and funded association of hundreds of state-based legislators, often provides legislators and their staff with model legislation.
The Texas bill is also intended to stifle independent reporters or news organizations from uncovering the facts about animal abuse on corporate run farms, by prohibiting them from "entering" facilities and taking "photographs or a video recording with the intent to defame the facility or the facility's owner." This legislation also creates an Internet database "of the names of animal rights and ecological terrorists, and requires that every person who commits an offense under the bill to provide all change of address information," claims the Texas ACLU.
Texas is not the only state trying to pen-in family farm and animal rights activists. In Oklahoma, according to an early-May report in the National Hog Farmer, Gov. Brad Henry signed a bill - passed overwhelmingly by the Senate and the House - targeting "eco-terrorists." The industry journal reported that "the law makes trespassing onto a site where animals are kept and 'disrupting' operations a felony. Punishment includes jail time and up to a $10,000 fine."
"The governor believes the legislation strikes a good balance between commerce and environmental issues," says Rep. James Covey, D-Custer City, the bill's author.
In June 2002, Kansas enacted a law creating the crime of "endangering the food supply," according to the Web site of the National Conference of State Legislatures. The class A misdemeanor can be increased to a felony if the activity includes a disease introduced into the food supply or "if the intent is to cause economic harm or social unrest." And, Utah has approved a bill that "relates to domestic terrorism by animal rights activists and creates a specific offense of commercial terrorism and penalties."
During the 2003 legislative session, similar bills have been introduced in New York, Oregon, Ohio and Missouri.
In Ohio, an "Eco-terrorism" bill (SB 147), introduced by Senator Mumper, passed the Senate but did not go to a vote in the House. According to the Agricultural Law Newsletter of the Ohio State University Extension, the bill "creates criminal and civil recourse for intentional harm to field crops, field crop products, timber, timber products, or livestock produced for specified purposes or any equipment, laboratory, or research used in or for the purposes of their production."
In Missouri, a mid-May editorial by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out that rural legislators had proposed a bill that "would make it a crime to photograph puppy mills or livestock operations." Although the bill has not made it out of committee, its supporters are threatening "to attach it to other legislation that is expected to pass." The bill makes taking pictures "a crime," and it "would blow a big hole in the state's Sunshine Law by closing records of official inspections of animal breeding operations," says the editorial. "Photographs have focused attention on the filth and suffering of dogs bred in puppy mills in Missouri and the environmental degradation caused by factory farms. The Legislature should insist that the problems get fixed, not covered up."
On May 14, the Jefferson City News Tribune reported that the Missouri House had rejected a bill making it a felony to photograph animals on private property.
Although these legislative initiatives are ostensibly designed to thwart a biological or chemical attack on the food supply, they have the actual effect of chilling public debate on how animals are treated at corporate-run farms. That's because the language in most of these bills is so ambiguous and casts a wide net that could easily ensnare peaceful protesters, product boycotters, and/or those who financially support activist organizations. Will this threat to civil liberties stop pro-agribusiness state legislators from continuing to introduce these bills? Don't count on it.
For more on Texas HB 433, click here.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.