Divided 3rd Circuit upholds convictions of 6 animal activists

Monday, October 19, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — In a split decision, a federal appeals court has upheld the convictions of six animal-rights activists charged under a terrorism statute with using their Web site to incite threats and vandalism against a company that tests products on animals.

The 2-1 decision on Oct.14 was the first federal appellate court ruling on a constitutional challenge to the law.

Defense lawyers call the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty case only the latest example of the government’s infringing on activists' free speech. One compared it to the pursuit of communists and civil-rights activists a half-century ago.

“The government is always doing the same thing, prosecuting the loud leaders for conspiracy to commit particular crimes that they are not committing, and are not planning to commit,” defense lawyer Peter Goldberger said on Oct. 15.

Six members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty were convicted at a 2006 trial in New Jersey of conspiracy to violate the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act. The law, since revised, aimed to protect animal research laboratories from illegal, sometimes violent protests.

The group was formed to protest the activities of Huntingdon Life Sciences in Franklin Township, N.J. The company had been a target of animal activists since video footage surfaced on television in the 1990s depicting animal abuse at its laboratory in the United Kingdom.

Huntingdon used mostly mice and rats — but also some dogs, monkeys, fish and guinea pigs — in its research in New Jersey.

The activists posted the home addresses of Huntingdon officials and contractors on the group's Web site, and harassment, vandalism and violence sometimes followed.

In one example raised at trial, Andrew Baker, chairman of a Huntingdon holding company, testified that protesters broke windows and threw smoke bombs into his Los Angeles home and also targeted a daughter's apartment in New York, plastering her door with pictures depicting his death.

“While advocating violence that is not imminent and unlikely to occur is protected, speech that constitutes a 'true threat' is not,” Judge Julio Fuentes wrote in the lengthy 3rd U.S. Circuit Court ruling in U.S. v. Fullmer.

The Stop Huntingdon defendants claimed that the Animal Enterprise Protection Act was unconstitutionally vague on its face and as applied to them. The majority rejected those claims.

The Stop Huntingdon group also endorsed “electronic civil disobedience” — some would call them cyberattacks — using technology to overwhelm company fax machines and computers. The campaign cost Huntingdon more than $400,000 in lost business, $50,000 in staffing costs to repair computer systems and $15,000 in computer equipment replacements, the opinion said.

“The record is rife with evidence that defendants were on notice that their activities put them at risk for prosecution, including the extensive use of various encryption devices and programs used to erase incriminating data from their computer hard drives,” Fuentes wrote for the majority.

Judge Michael Fisher, a former Pennsylvania attorney general, wrote in his dissent that he believed the conspiracy convictions should be overturned for lack of evidence.

Much of the government evidence involved actions against companies that did business with Huntingdon, from a pharmaceutical company to the Bank of New York and other financial firms. Yet the defendants were convicted of conspiring to physically and economically damage Huntingdon, Fisher noted. Some of the other defendants were also convicted of interstate stalking.

Defense lawyer Robert Obler said the ruling would be appealed, according to The Times of Trenton. “I’m fairly sure we will end up in the U.S. Supreme Court,” Obler told the newspaper. “We knew all along we would.”

The Stop Huntingdon group members, Joshua Harper, Darius Fullmer, Andrew Stepanian, Kevin Kjonaas, Lauren Gazzola and Jabob Conroy, were sentenced to up to six years in prison. Kjonass, Gazzola, and Conroy remain incarcerated.

First Amendment Center Online intern Allie Diffendal contributed to this report.

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