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(DV) Sugar: America's War on Speech and the SHAC 7 Trial







America's War on Speech and the SHAC 7 Trial
by David Sugar
June 6, 2005
(Revised and expanded June 7)

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On June 1st, they came to Trenton bearing the first amendment, placards of mutilated animals, and chants. They include people who range from ever-dangerous vegan teens to violent Manhattan insurance executives. Some brought their toddlers, who no doubt were organizing a chemical weapons attack. These were after all America's newest and most dangerously violent hardcore #1 domestic terrorist threat: Animal Rights Activists.  Seven members of an Animal Rights group known as SHAC (Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty) are on trial as "Animal Enterprise Terrorists," each facing 23 years imprisonment and perhaps a potential ticket for future Guantánamos, all for the dangerous and violent act of publishing a web site!

These violent terrorists are an orderly group. Mostly white, mainly middle class, these terrorists could be mistaken for anyone, your neighbor, your friends, in any suburban community in the U.S.  They remain orderly even as police bearing Kevlar armor place barricades in front of them.  But the government says these people are violent and extremely dangerous, in fact the most violent and dangerous people in America today. The same government that said there were WMDs in Iraq and still claims Saddam Hussein and Osama were allies to promote a "revenge war."

What have these SHAC activists done, you may wonder, to be labeled by the FBI as America's most dangerous terrorist threat. Apparently it involves a lot of public protesting and chants. We all know how dangerous speech can be. But here is what they themselves say: "In 4 short years SHAC has brought one of the worlds largest animal testing labs to its knees driving it $85 million into debt, getting it kicked off the New York and London Stock Exchanges, and making HLS a horrifying household name around the world."

The SHAC 7 defendants are actually a part of a specific group of animal rights activists that explicitly targets Huntington Life Sciences (HLS), a company that practices animal vivisection, through the use of a direct action campaign against HLS, and those companies that do business with it. The SHAC 7 defendants, the ones actually charged with terrorism, only ran the advocacy web site which publishes information, and are not themselves charged with participating in these direct actions.

The government claims that SHAC promoted violence and terror on the organization’s web site. The government claims the SHAC web site advocated targeting children and promoted the spraying of cleaning fluid in a company workers face. The government claims the SHAC web site promotes stalking and targeting of individual victims. The government makes a great many claims about the SHAC web site, many of which are taken out of context.

I actually have seen the SHAC web site in the past, and I have reviewed and researched just a few of the specific allegations. One of the allegations in fact refers to claims in an article republished on the SHAC site from an animal research company itself. Another claim I found only related to something being reported in an article as having happened, and not something that was being advocated. If the New York Times reports on a rape case, does this mean the New York Times is guilty of advocating rape?

Indeed, the government case, from what I can make of it is, is formed from innuendo and articles taken completely out of context.  Using these very same methods, I could easily go through an activist site, like say the Dissident Voice, and similarly claim that they advocate the violent overthrow of the American government and assassination of the President.

In fact, the SHAC web site and their publications offer careful advice on what are legally permitted forms of protest and what are not. They only advocate that legal methods be used. They do have articles and reports on other activities, just like any activist web site that reports information or that publishes articles. This is clearly a first amendment case.

SHAC activists as a whole are actually a rather isolated sub-group of animal activists, as they seem to only involve themselves in HLS related actions. They are large enough to have their own publications, some of which I read, and chapters in several countries. But I think their focused nature, their general success through direct actions, and their near complete isolation, even from other animal activists, let alone those involved in other areas, is why the government choose to target them, rather than some other group. The predator always tries to isolate and strike the stray animal from the herd.

Perhaps their other crime, and the reason they were specifically targeted for prosecution, was from being successful against a company with very strong political connections. HLS has been a strong lobbyist for the Animal Enterprise Terrorism act, which is meant to criminalize the act of legitimate protest against the profit making abilities of a corporation.  In this ill-conceived law, harming a corporation through civil disobedience and lawful protest is now itself elevated to a terrorist act. Furthermore, simply reporting on the actions and activities of people who engage in legitimate protest and civil disobedience has also become a terrorist act, and the basis for this prosecution of the First Amendment that began in Trenton on June 1st.

If you are wondering why those who run a web site are being charged with terrorism, rather than the people actively engaged in "direct activism," so was I, until I read some of their publications and their web site. They put a great deal of effort into explaining what are legally permitted forms of protest and direct action.  It is possible a few of their younger members may have strayed over that boundary, but I do not believe even this government could make the case that vegan high school kids pulling pranks are a terror threat.

But this case was never about domestic terrorism. This case is about free speech and the right to protest corporations. The indictment states that the seven are alleged to have run a website that REPORTED ON protests aimed at pressuring investors, stockbrokers and customers of the animal experimentation facility Huntington Life Sciences to divest from the facility. The indictment alleges the seven conspired to encourage the disruption of commerce at HLS. Indeed, if we take what the government interpretation of the AEP act at face value, to define domestic terrorism as any third party action that limits commerce, whether criminal in method or not, and no matter how peaceful, then perhaps one day, for example, a Christian coalition group who choose to run a boycott campaign against a company and their sponsors may also find themselves prosecuted as terrorists. This case is a threat to the very freedoms of ALL Americans.

Considering the significance of this trial, the lack of coverage not only in the national press, but even in independent media outlets, is astounding. Well known New York Documentary filmmaker Andy Roth, who has covered the SHAC group since last year, also believes this trial is neither about Animal Rights nor Animal Activism. "It’s a human rights issue, and about what precedent this could set for other groups, like PETA or Greenpeace."

Given this lack of coverage, and to see who these dangerous and violent domestic terrorists are for myself, I went undercover and, using a highly sophisticated investigative technique known as bumming a ride, I was able to penetrate their organization. The domestic terrorists I traveled north with were in fact so dangerous that, when confronted with missing their exit, they briefly considered committing a terrorist act right in front of my eyes, a U-turn.  America can rest easier though, they choose to continue to the next exit.

In the end, all I can conclude is that the SHAC defendants, rather than being violent and dangerous extremists, are really being charged and punished for successful activism against a company through lawful means. And so the SHAC group continues to protest and chant, every day of the trial, "One struggle, one fight! Human freedom, animal rights!,” but is anyone listening who should be?

David Sugar is a founder and former Chief Technology Officer of Open Source Telecom Corporation (  He is also the primary author for a number of packages that are part of the GNU project.

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