Three States Aim to Outlaw Eco-Protests

AUSTIN, Texas, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - A bill pending in the Texas state legislature that outlines penalties against criminal behavior by animal rights protestors has critics concerned that it would outlaw all environmental advocacy. Similar bills are pending in New York and Pennsylvania.

"We could be considered an eco-terrorist organization under this bill because what we do is try to advocate for positive change at state levels," says Julian Zelazny, director of the State Environment Resource Center (SERC) in Madison, Wisconsin. SERC provides research and tools for state lawmakers.

SERC opposes the legislation in Texas as do other groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The bill, Texas HB 433, authored by Representative Ray Allen of Grande Prairie, a Republican, would amend Chapter 28 of the state's penal code with a section under the heading "Animal Rights and Ecological Terrorism."

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Texas state Representative Ray Allen is the first Republican elected from his district in 130 years. (Photo courtesy Texas Legislature)
The bill establishes as a crime obstructing "any lawful activity involving the use of a natural resource with an economic value," including mining, foresting, harvesting, or processing natural resources, or obstructing a lab being used for research on animals, a circus, rodeo or zoo, if it is done with "political motivation," or by someone "acting on behalf of an animal rights or ecological terrorist organization."

"Political motivation," according to Allen's bill, means an intent to influence a governmental entity or the public to take a specific political action.

The bill defines an animal rights or ecological terrorist organization 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."

Zelazny calls the language "pretty cut and dried" when it comes to eliminating many types of environmental activities. "If you look at the language, all you need are two people to work in opposition to some environmental or animal use action, and all they need to be doing is trying to change people's minds or a government decision to be labeled eco-terrorists."

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Allen's bill would criminalize this 2001 protest by the Houston Animal Rights Team in front of a Houston Burger King. (Photo courtesy Houston Animal Rights Team)
But Mike Flynn, director of policy for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Arlington, Virginia, calls the language appropriate and says it is a response to a growing problem that needs its own category of legislation. ALEC works with member legislators to craft model legislation, of which HB 433 is an example.

The bill's language is specifically intended to separate the volunteer who writes a check to the local Sierra Club or other environmental organization from someone who would commit acts of violence, Flynn says.

The language separates violent criminal actions from what some legislators see as less serious offenses. "The fact that you are brought up on trespassing charges is not same as if you are convicted of undertaking a terrorist act," Flynn explains.

"When these incidents come up, the local DA [District Attorney] might not prosecute the violation. He might treat it like some high schoolers caught in the mall after dark. We believe they are more serious and deserve a more serious response."

Zelazny argues that those types of criminal activity are covered by current laws concerning trespassing, vandalism and destruction of property. "What they're targeting are folks who do destructive and malicious acts. Those are already illegal, and none of the major environmental groups would advocate it," he says.

"We already have laws in the books to cover everything," says Flynn. "But quite often legislators will create new classes. This is a way to put more focus on it. A lot of legislators feel there's not enough focus on enviroterrorism.

"This is not the Sierra Club - this is a group that will burn buildings or spike trees. By any definition, these are terrorist acts," Flynn says. "Let's all agree that these people are terrorists and move on."

In the Pennsylvania Legislature, Bill 599 creates a new offense, "environmental harassment," for anyone who "communicates to another person a threat to commit or cause to be committed a crime of violence dangerous to human life or destructive to property or business practices for the purpose of expressing a perspective on an environmental or natural resource issue."

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Pennsylvania hunter, age 13, with a deer he shot in Tioga County last December. People who talk about a hunting protest that targets a business such as a sporting goods store would be committing a criminal offense if a bill before the Pennsylvania Legislature becomes law. (Photo courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission)
In the New York State Legislature, parallel bills in the Senate and Assembly are more narrowly defined to keep protestors away from animal research facilities and their operations.

Critics question a provision in the New York and Texas bills that would create a record for each criminal offender that would be maintained on the state website for three years.

"One of the visions is to set up an actual registry of people who have been convicted," says Flynn. "It's important to note that it's only people convicted, not people charged."

As it stands, Zelazny says, Texas HB 433 goes too far and would criminalize legal and peaceful forms of protests. "It doesn't do what it says it does."

Flynn thinks critics are misreading both the intent and the language. "We can worry about any legal statute because the definition of it is gonna be incredibly vague. But it's still the act that drives what happens. They still have to commit the acts. They still have to destroy property."

As of today, the Texas bill could become moot, as Democratic state lawmakers are holed up in an Ardmore, Oklahoma motel in a protest against Republican redistricting plans. Unless they return before midnight May 15, bills currently in session most likely will not pass as it is the last day for the House to consider bills and joint resolutions on second reading.

The absent Texas Democrats say they will return to the Capitol on Friday, after the midnight Thursday deadline expires for the Republican redistricting plan.