As AC readers know, SHAC is trying to force Huntingdon Life Sciences, a lab that uses animals for testing pharmaceuticals, out of business. SHAC's strategy is simplicity incarnate: they target HLS's suppliers, clients and investors and try to separate them from HLS. If SHAC succeeds, HLS would wither on the vine, so to speak, and die.
Tactically, SHAC identifies their tertiary targets, then harasses and threatens the target's employees by demonizing them and posting personal information about them and their family on websites (addresses, telephone numbers, names of children, children's school, etc.). Then, annonymous "activists" make threatening calls, vandalize property, send threatening mail, and otherwise terrorize folks until their company severs ties with HLS.
The SHAC 7 is a group of seven "activists" who've been instrumental in demonizing and advertising personal details about HLS employees and employees of companies doing business with HLS. They were busted by the feds for their efforts, and are now claiming that the information about and their demonization of their targets on their website is protected by the First Amendment.
In a novel First Amendment battle, a federal judge has been asked to decide whether free speech protections can shield seven animal rights activists from prosecution on charges that they used the Internet to promote a "terrorist" campaign against a New Jersey research lab.
Members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA or SHAC have urged U.S. District Judge Mary Cooper in Trenton to dismiss charges that they conspired to violate federal law by encouraging vandalism and harassment against Huntingdon Life Sciences of Somerset County. The case centers around a Web site campaign SHAC operated over the past several years calling for "direct action" to protest Huntingdon's testing of chemicals and pharmaceuticals on animals.
SHAC listed "Top Twenty Terror Tactics," posted the names and addresses of employees and clients of Huntingdon and celebrated acts of vandalism against them, according to a federal indictment handed up last year.
Both prosecutors and defense lawyers agree the case, slated for trial in June, will test the extent to which Internet speech is protected by the First Amendment in an age of expanding communication technology and new laws to thwart terrorism. In the mix is a little-known law, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which Congress adopted to specifically deal with an upsurge in violent animal rights activity directed at businesses that use animals.
"The First Amendment applies to the Internet. Web sites are tantamount to newspapers. ... It's in every sense the community newspaper," said defense lawyer Andrew Erba, urging Cooper at a recent court hearing to dismiss the case before trial on free speech grounds. Cooper reserved decision.
Invoking images of early American revolutionaries printing pamphlets urging revolt, Erba and attorney Isabelle McGinty called SHAC's Web site nothing more than protected political hyperbole. Although arguing there is no proof of a unified effort by the "SHAC 7" to create the Web site, let alone a conspiracy, the lawyers compared their activism to the civil rights boycotts of the 1950s and 1960s.
"Where's the crime? It is free speech communication. It is protected communication. It is not a criminal act," McGinty told Cooper.
The crime, according to the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, is that the sole purpose of SHAC has been an illegal conspiracy to shut down and damage Huntingdon by means of harassment and violence. The indictment contends the SHAC 7 engaged in stalking and used "a facility in interstate and foreign commerce" -- the Internet -- to incite sympathizers to take illegal actions against Huntingdon.
"The purpose of the SHAC Web site was to provide information to SHAC sympathizers and to incite them to cause physical harm to property and emotional harm to individuals, all in furtherance of driving HLS out of business," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Charles McKenna and Ricardo Solano wrote in legal briefs submitted to Cooper.
One Web site call to action by SHAC in 2001 prompted activists to toss rocks through the windows of a Huntingdon employee's home and vandalize two cars, said prosecutors. That same day, the tires of another employee's car were slashed, and his home was spray-painted.
Solano also told Cooper that SHAC used its site to organize an e-mail blitz on Huntingdon's offices, a tactic known as a "Zombie attack" that resulted in an overload of their computer system.
"It falls outside the First Amendment because it falls into a pattern of intimidation, ... the intentional act of targeting people. Essentially, their lives became a hell," Solano said.
A lack of criminal case law on the issues prompted prosecutors and defense lawyers alike to rely on federal civil law to bolster their arguments. Prosecutors drew parallels between SHAC activities and two cases of violence-laced speech that federal appeals courts said went beyond First Amendment protections.
In a 1997 ruling, a lawsuit was upheld against a firm that published the book, "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors." The suit was filed by the family of three people killed in Maryland in 1993 by a contract killer who used the book as a manual.
In a 2002 ruling, anti-abortion activists were held liable for a Web site that included Wild West-style wanted posters of abortion doctors, including the crossed-out photographs of doctors who were murdered. The federal court, acting on a lawsuit filed by doctors and clinics, said the activists were liable for damages because their works were illegal threats, not free speech.
"It's vastly different than what the government alleges these individuals (SHAC) did on their Web site. Doctors were killed. You do not have that level of activity here," Erba said.
McGinty said the SHAC case is more akin to the boycott conducted by the NAACP of white-owned businesses in Clairborne County, Miss., between 1966 and 1972.
The U.S. Supreme Court found the NAACP not liable for financial losses suffered by local merchants, despite the fact some blacks who violated the boycott were targeted with violence. The Supreme Court ruled that, although liability can be found in cases of illegal activity, the Clairborne boycott was largely nonviolent, lawful and protected activity.
The seven SHAC members indicted include Darius Fullmer, who once called himself the head of the New Jersey chapter of SHAC, and John McGee, of Edison. Three other defendants, Kevin Kjonaas, Lauren Gazzola and Jacob Conroy, are former New Jersey residents. Also charged were Joshua Harper of Seattle and Andrew Stepanian of Huntington, N.Y.
So — legally, is what the SHAC 7 is accused of having done protected speech, or incitement to violence?
Above, Erba for the SHAC 7 attempts to separate what they did from what the anti-abortion people did by arguing that so far, nobody's been killed by someone incited by SHAC. I don't think that's a very compelling argument in light of the rulings in the anti-abortion case. The similarities between the violent anti-abortion people of yesteryear and today's violent AR people seem too great, and making the most appalling endpoint on a continuum of violence the gold standard seems untenable and almost desperate to me. And I think that though some renegades may have acted violently while claiming to be under the NAACP's banner, I don't recall that the NAACP itself ever adopted a public policy approving the use of intimidation, arson, threats and violence to achieve their ends.
In short, to me, SHAC is much more similar to the violent anti-abortion people than to the old NAACP.
Parenthetically, it's worth recalling these prophetic words from Jerry Vlasak who, when building an ethical case for assassinating scientists, said this:
Unknown female speaker: "That's just like the pro-life movement killing abortion doctors."
Male, presumably Vlasak: "Absolutely. I think they had a great strategy going."
Now, Vlasak isn't a member of SHAC but he clearly sees the parallel between the two movements, and would like to see the Animal Rights movement go that extra little step (follow this link to watch Dr. Vlasak advocate killing scientists during a TV interview).
So — if somone hasn't been killed yet, it's through no fault of SHAC or Vlasak.
The AMP Digest also points out that an article in Herbivore Magazine suggests that support for the SHAC 7 has been much less than hoped for:
[ . . . ]
To help mount a legal defense, numerous benefits have been organized for the SHAC 7 and for SHAC itself, which was also indicted (organizations aren't entitled to a court-appointed attorney).
But while they've received significant outpourings of support, it hasn't been to the degree that they expected and hoped for. She attributes this to a number of reasons: "First, the animal rights movement in general is the bastard cause of the left, as many of us know. Anytime anything happens to us, I think it falls to the wayside for most groups" (sic). [People have this perception that animal rights people have made their bed , now they can sleep in it."
She also sees a change in people's willingness to support more radical tactics since September 11. "We hear things like, 'That might have been appropriate five years ago, but we're in a time now when certain tactics aren't acceptable.' But the moment we roll over and accept the tactics as dictated by the state is the moment we lose," she says.
[ . . . ]
Interesting stuff, that. We'll just need to await developments.
Followup post: SHAC 7 Trial: A Possible Prosecution Strategy