New federal initiatives against ecoterrorism have raised questions about possible stifling of legitimate free speech and political expression which may be protected under the First Amendment.
Ecoterrorism is now officially a top FBI priority, and a new bill specifically targets ecoterrorism with an array of legal powers and penalties that rival those in the USA Patriot Act.
"It's scary," said Lydia Antoncic of the New York group Animal Welfare Advocacy. "The valid fear of 9/11 has transformed into a hysteria and witchhunt. Everyone's trying to list their biggest opponent as a terrorist."
The FBI's focus on ecoterror was stated in May 18, 2004 testimony by John E. Lewis of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The FBI appears to be primarily focused on the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Earth Liberation Front (ELF), but other groups (including small local groups or individuals) may be targeted for investigation. FBI press office: 202-324-3691
Soon after this testimony, Rep. George Nethercutt (R-WA) introduced the "Ecoterrorism Prevention Act of 2004" HR4454: browse and search on HR4454.) This broadly worded bill would establish "Federal criminal penalties and civil remedies for certain violent, threatening, obstructive, and destructive conduct that is intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with plant or animal enterprises, and for other purposes." It's currently referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. Nethercutt press: April Isenhower, 202-225-2006.While destruction of property or endangerment of human life are serious crimes with or without a political context, animal rights groups fear state and federal ecoterror legislation is so broad that it will have a chilling effect on legitimate political speech. Thus, picketing or merely carrying a protest sign outside a laboratory or slaughterhouse could be considered threatening or obstructive conduct and penalized as heavily as blowing up a passenger airplane.
An anti-ecoterror law already exists on the federal statute books: the Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992 (PL 102-346). It is mild compared to the Nethercutt bill, setting different penalty levels for actions that damage property, injure or endanger people, or actually cause death.
The Nethercutt bill extends the scope of the law to include plant and biotech enterprises, country fairs, zoos, circuses, and rodeos, and makes it a crime of ecoterrorism to do anything that could lower the revenues of (or even have a "perceived impact" on) such enterprises. It authorizes the feds to use against anyone defined as an ecoterrorist laws like RICO and the Hobbs Act, which are intended for fighting organized crime. It also makes it a crime to harbor or materially support anyone considered an ecoterrorist, and empowers the Attorney General to designate ecoterrorist groups as domestic terrorist organizations, allowing the government to revoke their tax-exempt status, seize their assets, and take other stringent actions.