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New Law May Echo Over Many Protests

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So, a tree-hugger chained to a bulldozer and Osama bin Laden walk into a bar ...

Thanks to the state's new ecoterrorism bill, they could have a lot to talk about ... they may both be labeled terrorists. The new law, passed overwhelmingly in both the House and Senate and signed on April 14 by Gov. Ed Rendell, makes it a felony to obstruct commercial activity involving plants or animals ... tactics long used by animal-rights and environmental activists to protest things such as animal-testing labs and logging operations. In his signing statement, Rendell cited the example of W.B. Saul Agricultural High School in Philadelphia, which has repeatedly been vandalized and been the victim of animal theft two years ago.

 

The school, which has a Meat Sciences program and a working farm, has been petitioned by a group called Hugs for Puppies that seeks, among other things, bigger cages for the animals it keeps.

 

Bill supporters say this new law merely clarifies old laws against trespassing or vandalism ... and that it's a needed strengthening of penalties against those they view as "extremists."

"It's a bill that protects peoples' private property," says State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline), who voted for the bill. "It just seems like the right thing to do as far as protecting their rights and their livelihood."

 

John Ellis, executive director of the Pennsylvania Society for Biomedical Research, says that the specific actions the bill further criminalizes are far worse than mere vandalism or mischief. He envisions "[p]eople's lives [being] terrorized: In the middle of the night someone sprays 'puppy killer' on their house." Stiffer penalties, he says, may daunt those who might consider pouring paint-stripper on the cars of animal testers, or gluing the locks of philanthropic organizations which have a board member with logging-industry ties.

 

"It will lead to a decrease in crime," he believes. "It's what's been seen in the United Kingdom," where such laws are in place.

 

Opponents, however, say the measure criminalizes unpopular viewpoints and puts civil liberties at risk.

 

"It will have an impact on everyone who has a dissent," says Jim Kleissler, executive director of Garfield's social justice organization, the Thomas Merton Center. Kleissler was also the former head of the Allegheny Defense Fund, an environmental watchdog group focused on the state's Allegheny National Forest.

 

"Ruling that a misdemeanor-like trespass is an act of terrorism is absurd," he says. "This bill wasn't initiated because of ALF or ELF," the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, two activist groups noted for sometimes violent and destructive protest measures. (Early this year, federal prosecutors in Seattle indicted 11 people in connection with five years of arson and destruction, causing millions of dollars in damages, anonymously claimed by ALF and ELF over the years.) "It's about powerful interests getting laws passed to make it harder for the public to protest their egregious actions," Kleissler says.

 

"It seems like a solution in search of a problem," says state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Lawrenceville), one of 10 in the Senate and 16 in the House who voted against the bill. "We have laws on the books. If there are criminalities, punish them. This raises civil-liberties issues."

 

The ACLU opposed the bill on First Amendment grounds. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Larry Frankel, legislative director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, called the bill unconstitutional because it amounted to viewpoint discrimination. A group demonstrating in front of an animal-research facility could be charged with ecoterrorism for blocking the entrance, he said, while a group picketing a weapons-manufacturing plant would not face such charges ... despite doing essentially the same thing.

 

"The bottom line, it's overkill," says Mike Healey, lawyer with the Downtown firm of Healey and Hornack, who, as a member of the National Lawyers Guild often represents local activists after protest arrests. "It's providing enhanced punishments based on political viewpoints. The First Amendment shouldn't be allowing that."

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