Animal Activists Fight for Their Own Rights | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

May 12, 2010 News » Cover Story

Animal Activists Fight for Their Own Rights 

Some Utah animal advocates fear being put in a legal cage.

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In 1997, the most destructive act of eco-terrorism in Utah history was committed against the Fur Breeders Agriculture Co-op in Sandy, a farmer-owned co-op that provides livestock food, when an incendiary device started a fire that caused about $1 million in damage. Brothers Douglas Joshua Ellerman, then 21, and Clinton Colby Ellerman, then 22, later pleaded guilty to explosives charges and served seven years and five years each in prison, while a federal jury acquitted three others charged in the incident. None are currently active in local animal rights groups.

Recently, five activists were acquitted after being charged with violating Salt Lake City’s targeted-residential picketing ordinance, passed in July 2007, to manage animal rights protests at the homes of University of Utah researchers who use animals in their experiments [see “Residential Picketing Case Ends in Acquittals,” May 6, City Weekly]. At least six residential demonstrations were held after the ordinance passed without arrests, says acquitted picketer Thomas Risk, but at the seventh demonstration, 16 picketers were cited. Others were convicted, four of whom are appealing.

But another case local activists have no direct relationship to has them worried. The so-called SHAC-7 case, upheld by the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in December, charged six activists and their organization—Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty—with animal-enterprise terrorism and stalking. The group coordinated protests at the homes of officials from Huntingdon Life Sciences, an animal-testing agency based in New Jersey.

No one was charged with actually vandalizing property, issuing violent threats or trespassing, though prosecutors presented unproven evidence of those crimes and others. The SHAC-7 were nevertheless convicted of encouraging and supporting illegal activities, in part, by posting addresses on its Website and cheering on illegal acts that they say were committed exclusively by others. The Center for Constitutional Rights has asked for an en banc review of the 3rd Circuit panel’s decision, stating Americans have long been allowed to condone illegal behavior. CCR argues that what the SHAC-7 did with their Website was “menacing public speech,” which has been protected by the courts in the past, not a “true threat,” which is not protected.

The case deeply concerns Young. He’s the closest thing to a SHAC-like entity in Utah. Since his release from prison, he’s compiled The Blueprint, a national directory of hundreds of mink farms across the country and distributes it on his Website. Previous to Hall and Viehl being arrested, he offered a $2,500 defense fund to anyone arrested in connection with the mink release. He repeats ALF communiques posted on other Websites. He publicly endorses illegal actions like mink releases.

Could he be investigated for supporting illegal activities based on those facts alone? Industry spokeswoman Teresa Platt is curious about that very question. As the executive director of Fur Commission USA, she knows Young by name, as well as Viehl, Hall and others. Indeed, she thinks the “terrorist” label is appropriate for them and says ranchers who use animals are a persecuted minority. “They’re just ordinary, hard-working people trying to figure out how to deal with these crimes of special-interest domestic terrorism,” she says. She says the roughly 40-year history of illegal animal-rights actions has contained many violent threats and some actual violence against ranchers and animal researchers, and thus, many animal rights actions now carry an implicit threat and encouragement of violence. “If you read some of [Young’s] statements, they’re borderline incitement, right? He does offer people money should they get caught breaking the law. Is that incitement? … He’s probably had legal advice on what he can and can not say, but he is close.”

The FBI won’t say how close he is, but it seems the FBI already associates Young with at least one of the 150 eco-terrorism investigations the FBI acknowledges are ongoing.

The Feds

In March, Young moved to Salt Lake City, where most of his eight roommates are animal-rights activists, vegan and Straight Edge. The entire household was served a search warrant by the FBI on March 15 that authorized the agents to seize any materials that may contain information about Young’s travels, associates, or communications that may be connected to “animal enterprise terrorism.” Cell phones, iPods, pictures and computers were taken, not just from Young, but from some of his roommates.

The warrant was issued out of the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Southern District of Iowa where Scott DeMuth, 22, of Minneapolis, is on trial, accused of vandalizing a University of Iowa animal research laboratory in 2004. Young says he doesn’t even know DeMuth, nor did he have anything to do with the Iowa incident, but he blogged critically of the prosecution on multiple occasions, both before and after the raid. He believes federal law enforcement is trying not just to hassle and make people distrust him, but to do that to the entire household of activists. Young’s roommate, Matt Bruce, and others in the house believe the FBI purposefully waited for Young to move in—only four days prior to the raid—in order to instill fear and gather possessions from all of them. “It’s definitely been an activist house for years,” Bruce said.

Many of the activists want to utilize all legal means in pursuit of their goals, and they want clear direction from law enforcement on what, for example, prompted the FBI to sic an informant on them. How can they avoid being investigated in the future but still fully flex their constitutional rights? Is that even possible?

On the municipal level, they have on multiple occasions asked Salt Lake City officials for clear guidance on the residential targeted picketing ordinance and have gotten nothing—no advice and no guidance. Salt Lake City Prosecutor Sim Gill told City Weekly, “My job is not to give legal advice.”

Especially in the face of the SHAC-7 case and what it represents to them, the activists complain, that’s not good enough.

Assistant Special Agent in Charge Kenneth Porter, of the FBI field office in Salt Lake City, compares that sentiment to “children asking their parents how far they can go without being spanked.” He has parentlike advice as well: “Don’t push the envelope.”

Local FBI officials say the line between free speech and illegal support of others’ crimes is determined on a case-by-case basis, so they can’t provide a detailed guide on how to approach the line of legality without crossing it. FBI Chief Division Legael Counsel Trent Pedersen said that if activists are spotted in the middle of the night near a mink farm—as Viehl and Hall once were—they might be investigated for genuine concerns that they are planning to commit a crime—which is itself a crime under federal law. But what if the activists are in a researcher’s neighborhood late at night holding candles, which local activists have done during vigils? Does that justify a full-blown terrorism investigation involving informants, search warrants and all? The FBI won’t say.

The FBI also declined to discuss the local mink releases from 2008, because even though both Hall and Viehl have pleaded guilty, Hall has yet to be sentenced, and the bureau rarely comments on active cases. Likewise, the FBI wouldn’t comment on FBI informants past or present the search warrant at Young’s home or whether Beckham is listed on a terrorist watch list.

Pedersen says no group is targeted because of its political beliefs and says the bureau does not intimidate political groups with investigation tools like search warrants. “That happened in the ’70s … but the Attorney General’s guidance on that is very clear, we’re not authorized to do that.” If a political group is to be investigated for suspected criminal activity of its members, he said, “the First Amendment is our guide” and extra precautions are taken to ensure the investigation won’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights.

Which may not be an easy task. Like Young, Viehl and Hall started as above-ground activists and hung around people from local animal-rights activist groups. That doesn’t mean anyone else in those groups encouraged Viehl and Hall to free mink or even knew they planned to do so, but it could explain—and, for some, justify—the use of informants and other investigation techniques that intimidate, scare and aggravate law-abiding activists even as they help determine the identities of guilty vandals.

Beckham, for one, worries government obstruction of legal actions is part of the inspiration for illegal actions like ecoterrorism. He quotes John F. Kennedy, who said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.”

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