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Criminalizing activists

A.L. Loy

Environmental activists and conservation groups are confronting a variety of state-level attempts to criminalize dissent aimed at corporate and commercial targets.

In Pennsylvania, Republican state senator Joe Scarnati has introduced SB589, which defines a new crime: “environmental harassment” or “communicating” a threat to commit or cause a violent crime dangerous to human life, property, or business practice. If passed, the bill would create a new misdemeanor and fines for actions leading to “loss of business.” Protest signs or slogans could be included under this rubric of threatening communication.

Activists convicted under the law might also have to pay restitution for resulting damages and loss of profit.

Legislators in New York and Texas, exploiting public fears of terrorist activity, have introduced bills that criminalize environmental activists as “eco-terrorists” and target their support networks.

In New York, animal rights organizations such as PETA face a bill that would increase penalties for tresspassing that occurs while documenting animal abuse on private property. In Texas, House Bill 433 was introduced in March by Republican state representative Ray Allen. Allen is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a Washington-based association of 200-plus conservative state lawmakers and hundreds of business leaders committed to elevating states rights, property rights, and free enterprise above environmental protection.

Allen’s bill was based on model legislation promoted last December by ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force, which he chairs. The proposed bill defines “animal rights” or “ecological terrorist” organizations as “two or more persons organized for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any person from participating in an activity involving animals or an activity involving natural resources.” Under the terms of the legislation, environmentalists using blockade and tree-sitting tactics to protect forests, or anti-fur activists blocking the doors of Neiman Marcus would be designated “eco-terrorists.”

Though the Texas bill died in committee when the legislative session ran out in conjunction with Texas Democrats fleeing to Oklahoma to protest Republicans’ redistricting plan, it would have increased fines and jail time for activities “with an intent to influence a government entity or the public to take a specific political action.” Likely to return in a future session, the bill calls for publicizing on a Web site the names of any person convicted under the legislation.

Julian Zelazny of the State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), an environmental policy think-tank based in Madison, Wisconsin, finds the Texas bill troubling. “We read it as any two or more people that have an opinion on state or federal environmental policy and act to change it could be labeled as ‘terrorist’,” says Zelazny. “If their concern is about violent direct action such as arson or tree spiking, states already have laws. Why the need for more legislation?”

Activists particularly fear the section of these laws that cover “aiding and abetting.” The Texas bill would have made it a crime for people who “knowingly provide financial support, resources, or other assistance” to individuals or groups that fall under the “eco-terrorism” definition. If ALEC has its way, groups and individuals who do so could face criminal charges, fines, or even seizure of assets.

SERC’s Zelanzy says such bills play on public fears by tapping into “anger, outrage and patriotism to silence critics and infringe on protected free speech.” Though most such bills have either stalled or died in state legislatures, Pennsylvania is on the watch list for civil disobedience activists.

A.L. Loy is assistant publisher at In These Times.
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