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September|October 2004
Making The Partner By Justin Dillon
Above It All By Amy Sullivan
Peter Ambrose, Bladder Cop By Ben Goldstein
The Beagle Brigade By Will Potter
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies

The Beagle Brigade

A law that tells animal rights activists to heel.

By Will Potter

ON A MUGGY TUESDAY IN JUNE, seven twenty-somethings who'd cancelled their previous plans—taking the LSAT, working the night shift at a convenience store—showed up to be arraigned at the federal courthouse in Trenton, N.J. They came two hours early, along with about 40 supporters who lined the street with banners and bullhorns. A police force of a dozen surrounded the demonstrators with tear gas guns, rifles, and a dog at the ready.

The protesters were mostly young women. They didn't look terribly threatening, with their thrift store clothes and handmade posters. But the cops said they knew better. "This group has a history. We want to be prepared," said one.

When their lawyers prodded them, the seven defendants put down their signs and trooped inside, where each entered a plea of not guilty. One of them, Lauren Gazzola, said she hoped her rap sheet and upcoming trial wouldn't keep her out of law school. Another, Darius Fullmer, said he'll put in 14-hour days as a paramedic this summer to bank time against the days he expects to miss once the trial starts in the fall.

The seven activists have the distinction of being the first defendants charged with violating the Animal Enterprise Protection Act because of the content of their website and newsletter and because of their protests. As members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, they're accused of conspiring to shut down Huntingdon Life Sciences, a New Jersey laboratory that tests pesticides and suntan lotion on mice, dogs, and primates. The SHAC Seven aren't the Chicago Seven, but each faces the possibility of 23 years in prison.

Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Protection Act in 1992 after fur, meat, and animal research industries successfully argued that they needed special protection from vandalism and theft by underground groups like the Animal Liberation Front, whose "long term aim is to end all animal suffering by forcing animal abuse companies out of business." The act made it a crime to cause "physical disruption" to an "animal enterprise" by stealing, damaging, or causing loss of property. So far, it's been used to prosecute Justin Samuel, a former University of Washington student who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2000 for freeing thousands of minks from Wisconsin fur farms.

The SHAC defendants are a different breed of activist. They pressure companies to stop doing business with Huntingdon Life Sciences by flooding executives with phone calls and e-mails, and by leading rowdy protests outside the executives' homes. The group targeted HLS in 2001 after five undercover video investigations by activists and journalists showed one researcher dissecting a live monkey and another punching a beagle puppy in the face after he couldn't fit a needle into the dog's tiny veins. (HLS doesn't dispute the footage, but says it has put a stop to such abuses.)

SHAC's guerrilla tactics have worked. HLS has been delisted by the New York Stock Exchange, and the company says it's near bankruptcy. Dozens of corporations, including Marsh, Inc., the lab's former insurer, have cut ties with it.

The indictment against the defendants takes a dim view of SHAC's accomplishments. It sternly describes, for example, "The attack on S. Inc."—which SHAC is happy to identify as Stephens Inc., an investment bank in Little Rock, Ark., that loaned the lab $35 million. The charge is that SHAC "caused the website www.stephenskills.com to be launched in order to apply pressure on S. Inc. to cease doing business with HLS." That pressure included posting an anonymous report announcing "that the home of WS, the head of S. Inc., was vandalized," which, the government argues, encouraged more such vandalism.

The U.S. Attorney's office says that SHAC is waging a campaign of intimidation. "The government is arguing that even if the individual acts are protected speech, the acts combined amount to a pattern of harassment and terrorism," said Daniel Perez, who is helping Gazzola with her case.

On their website and in speeches, the SHAC activists support some illegal tactics, like committing vandalism and taking animals out of labs. But they aren't charged with any of the crimes the website postings describe. They plan to argue that the postings are protected free speech under the First Amendment.

The activists are right, as long as they're not posting targeted threats against specific individuals, said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA. In 2002, a federal appeals court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect a website called the Nuremberg Files, which posted pictures of doctors who performed abortions with their names underneath the photos, and crossed off the names of three of them as they were killed. In the New Jersey case, Volokh said, the government must prove that the defendants made specific threats against a particular executive, or that they met and made an agreement with a group like the Animal Liberation Front to publicize and support illegal actions.

If the government can make that connection, then the activists will be treated like the abortion foes, who have been described as terrorists. If not, they're protected by the First Amendment, as the civil rights activist Charles Evers was when he urged a Mississippi crowd to boycott white businesses with the words, "If we catch any of you going in any of them racist stores, we're gonna break your damn neck."

While the SHAC activists await trial, attendance is up at protests. At a raucous event in Monrovia, Calif., 30 demonstrators loudly denounced one executive in the streets around his home. When they were sure the neighbors had heard them, they left for a nearby music festival.

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