For most of us, animal rights are a political afterthought. Even if we regard them as important, our concern for the rights of animals is unlikely to supersede our concern for the rights of people. In part, the hierarchy of concerns that many of us use to prioritize our attention and actions is motivated by this basic heuristic: the suffering of animals is not as important as the suffering of people, and so we should focus our efforts largely on addressing human suffering. However common, this mode of thinking is not without its problems. In fact, the legal landscape that has evolved around the issue of animal rights in general and animal liberation[1] in particular should concern us all; and we need not dismiss the heuristic that human suffering trumps animal suffering in order to appreciate this. This is because animal rights activists are now subject to a harsh set of anti-whistleblower laws (colloquially known as “ag-gag laws”) and an anti-terrorism law, i.e., the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) that complicate the application of the simple heuristic outlined above.

Together, these laws undermine basic human rights, freedom of the press and the freedom of information. The social consequences of these laws have even trickled down to the academy in the form of the suppression of research in the name of national security. As the date of Peter Singer’s forthcoming talk Animal Liberation nears, it is important to bear in mind that animal liberation is not simply about animals. Animal liberation, as pursued by a small group of activists, is a goal that can only be realized if information about factory farms is shared and discussed. Without access to such information, we can neither meaningfully consent to the status quo nor dissent in an active and informed manner. Ag-gag laws and the AETA serve to undermine the basic freedoms mentioned above. Hence, the issue of animal liberation can no longer be said to be wholly independent of our concerns about human rights.

Ag-gag laws are state laws in the United States passed in the name of protecting the agricultural industry and private property. (BBC journalists have already suggested that these laws can easily spread beyond the United States.) As is typical in the United States, these laws vary from state to state. But despite this variety, all these laws share an important similarity: they criminalize the practice of covertly recording the all-too-common abuses in factory farms. Moreover, these threats to the freedom of speech are not merely theoretical. In 2013, Utah’s ag-gag laws were used to criminally charge Amy Myer for filming a slaughterhouse from public property. A federal judge in Idaho recently struck down that state’s ag-gag law, arguing that it violated American’s right to free speech. While some view this ruling as an important victory for freedom of speech, the result is limited. There are still 19 ag-gag laws in effect. Moreover, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is a relatively recent piece of legislation, and may signify the trend toward continued institutional attempts to stifle freedom of speech.

As a federal law, the AETA is significantly more far reaching than the ag-gag laws. But the scope of the law is not its most problematic feature, for the AETA fundamentally changes how animal rights activists are prosecuted. This law targets activists who engage in theft and property damage by empowering the federal government to prosecute these actions as acts of terrorism. As The Guardian explains, the AETA was passed under pressure from industry-backed lobbyists in order to prosecute non-violent activists:

Congress passed the AETA [in 2006] under heavy lobbying from the pharmaceutical, fur and farming industries. Under its terms, anyone who damages the property or the profit line of an animal business and who uses “interstate commerce” such as a cellphone or the Internet to carry out the action can be convicted of terrorism even though no violence is involved.

It is no secret that the United States has a long history of harshly sentencing non-violent persons convicted of crimes at both state and federal levels. But the AETA significantly worsens the situation as it defines these persons as terrorists.

This label should strike us all as unnecessary, since there are already many laws that can serve to harshly punish extreme acts of violence. For example, one member of the Animal Liberation Front who detonated five pipe bombs at co-op that supplied minks to fur factories in Utah received seven years in jail and a fine of $750,000 USD. In this 1997 case, egregious acts of violence were committed. But, the existent legal framework was sufficient to appropriately sentence this person. In the post-AETA era, however, far less heinous crimes can now receive equally harsh sentences. For example, two Oakland activists were recently charged under the AETA for releasing over 5,000 minks and vandalizing property. Under the AETA, they now face a fine of $250,000 USD and up to 10 years in prison. I am not suggesting that these crimes go unpunished, only that they are not terrorism and that there is no obvious benefit to labeling these acts as such.

Some might suggest that these laws (the ag-gag laws and the AETA) do not present problems that should concern the general public and that they are relevant only to activists who do break the law to further their cause. However, this consideration is myopic, for not only does it misjudge the long-term effects of the legal precedent set by these laws, it also fails to appropriately contextualize them. The context that I refer to is not the experiences of animal rights activists, but the fact that these laws were passed in order to exclusively prosecute members of a small group of activists participating in civil disobedience or the legally collecting information about factory farms. Thus, laws such as these undermine the possibility of well-informed and meaningful forms of civil disobedience. We must seriously ask ourselves, as Glenn Greenwald encourages us to in The Intercept: How does it reflect on the priorities of the federal government, in light of its overarching mandate to serve the public, when two non-violent activists are prosecuted as terrorists but not Dylann Roof, the man who brutally gunned down nine people attending Bible study at a historically black church? As Greenwald explains, this law turns civil disobedience into an act of terrorism:

But there’s something deeper driving this persecution. American elites are typically willing to tolerate political protest as long as it remains constrained, controlled, and fundamentally respectful of the rules imposed by institutions of authority— i.e., as long as it remains neutered and impotent. When protest movements adhere to those constraints, they are not only often ineffective, but more so, they can unwittingly serve as a false testament to the freedom of the political process and the generosity of its rulers (they let us speak out: see, we’re free!). That kind of marginal, modest “protest” often ends up strengthening the process it believes it is subverting.

When, by contrast, a movement transgresses those limitations and starts to become effective in impeding the injustices it targets — particularly when preserving those injustices is valuable to the most powerful — that’s when it has to be stopped at all costs, including criminalizing it with the harshest possible legal weapons. This is the dynamic that explains the emerging campaign in the West to literally criminalize the previously marginalized BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement designed to stop Israeli occupation: It’s gaining too much ground, becoming too effective, and thus must be banned, its proponents and leaders threatened with prosecution. The fear that the animal rights movement is growing stronger and will succeed in exposing the horrifying realities of these industries’ practices is driving the persecution to the point of declaring it to be — and formally punishing it as — terrorism.

Even beyond that, the animal rights movement strikes at the heart of what is most cherished by American elites: the pillars of unrestrained capitalistic entitlement. That so much industrial profit depends upon extreme, constant torture and slaughter of animals is something regarded as, in essence, a sacred right.

Animal rights activists have admittedly engaged in theft and property damage. But these clearly do not qualify as acts of terrorism and should not be punished as such. These harsh punishments are being used to deter further agitation by activists. If we believe that the sentence should be proportional to the transgression—a fundamental tenet of justice—we cannot endorse the AETA.

Civil disobedience is not the only social cost associated with these laws and the political ideology from which they emerge. In addition to the problems described above, the US federal government is treating information concerning factory farms as sensitive to State security rather than vital to merely a profit-driven private enterprise. For example, Ryan Shapiro, a PhD candidate at MIT, used freedom of information requests to collect information about the US government’s prosecution of animal rights activists. This research is being conducted for his doctoral dissertation—Bodies at War: Animals, Science, & National Security in the United States, 1899-1979 (as well as other academic projects, such as the role played by the United States in the arrest of Nelson Mandela). According to a 2014 interview on Democracy Now!, Shapiro said that parts of his thesis are now regarded as sensitive to national security by the US government. Furthermore, the FBI has blocked Shapiro’s more recent requests on similar grounds:

Shapiro: And so, I have about 600 FOIA [freedom of information act] requests currently in motion with the FBI, pertaining to the FBI’s campaigns against the animal rights movement. And I’ve sued the FBI, because they have stopped complying with my requests. The FBI is now arguing in court that those FOIA requests themselves are threats to national security. Keep in mind, they’re not arguing that releasing the documents would be a threat to national security. They’re arguing that having to decide now whether or not they will release the documents—they want a seven-year delay so they can think about whether or not to release the documents. Otherwise, [they argue that releasing the documents] will constitute a threat to national security. Further, they argue the threat to national security is so severe that they cannot even tell us why [they do not wish to release the FOIA requested documents].

As we have seen above, the ag-gag laws are clearly intended to suppress free speech as they enable the prosecution of people engaging in the collection and distribution of information about factory farms. The invocation of the specter of terrorism and the so-called “threats to national security” has made the situation worse. As Shapiro explains, national security is now cited as a reason for the FBI to not even consider his requests, and this too in the absence of any ostensible threat to the US government or the people that it claims to represent. Our ability to access information has once again been curbed in the name of national security.

Some might argue that these issues have been ignored because animal liberation is a fringe movement. As I showed at the outset, the notion that the lives of humans are more important than those of animals frequently motivates a dismissal of the latter. But the current means by which animal rights activists are being prosecuted should concern us all. Ag-gag laws suppress freedom of speech. The EATA has been used to punish activists for theft and vandalism and suppress the public’s access to information regarding a politically powerful industry. As fringe movements become mainstream, efforts to marginalize them will gather pace (this tendency can also be seen in right-wing attempts to label the Black Lives Matter movement as a “hate group”). Even if we think that animal rights are not as important as human rights, it must be admitted that the laws used to prosecute animal rights activists are needlessly and disproportionately extreme. These laws do not pose risks for animals but for all of us. For this reason, we should at least appreciate that the animal rights vs. human rights dichotomy, so often leveled against animal rights’ activists, is no longer appropriate. If it ever was.



[1] Roughly speaking, this is the idea that all animals should be freed from human ownership. It is a broader concept than that of animal rights because supporting the notion that animals have rights does not entail that they have the right not be to humanly killed for the purpose of human consumption, for example.