Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Third is First of Circuits to Address Constitutionality of AEPA: Denies First Amendment Challenges

In a case of first impression nationally, the Third Circuit in United States v. Fullmer, et al., No. 06-4211, upheld the Animal Enterprise Protection Act ("AEPA") against First Amendment challenges. The defendants also challenged the sufficiency of the evidence and the jury instructions in this case, which involved charges of violating the act, interstate stalking, using telecommunications devices to abuse/threaten/harass, and conspiracy to do all of the same. The Court affirmed the convictions of the organization, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty ("SHAC"), and six individuals charged: the President of SHAC, the Campaign Coordinator for SHAC, the web creator/manager for SHAC, the Seattle branch manager for SHAC, a SAC activist who coordinated protests, and a SHAC Huntingdon campaign organizer in NJ.

A complete recitation of the facts from the Court’s 60-page opinion is not possible here. In brief: Huntingdon Life Sciences is a research corporation that performs testing for companies bringing products to market. Its labs use animals as test subjects. After animal abuse inside a Huntingdon lab in England was documented in the late 1990s, animal rights organizations began targeting the company. One of those organizations was Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty - UK ("SHAC-UK").

In the wake of an a brutal assault on its Managing Director by a member of SHAC-UK, Huntingdon relocated its financial base to the United States, where laws better protected the confidentiality of its shareholders, whom SHAC-UK had begun to target in the England. When a Huntingdon branch opened in New Jersey, SHAC formed a branch there, as well.

SHAC targeted Huntingdon, companies that were involved with Huntingdon, and people who worked for both Huntingdon and the affiliated companies. Its primary tool was its website, through which members coordinated protests. It posted the names, home addresses and home phone numbers of employees on the website. The web-page also included pages describing: (1) upcoming "direct action" – protests such as the activities at issue in this case; (2) previous "accomplishments" – for example, acts of vandalism committed by protesters; (3) "top 10 terror tactics," like smashing windows and firebombing cars; (4) how to evade investigators through techniques like encryption; and (5) "electronic civil disobedience" – such as inundating websites with email to crash servers or using "black faxes" to exhaust toner. The government’s evidence showed the cyberattacks cost Huntingdon $400,000 in lost business, $50,000 in staffing costs for repairs, and $15,000 in computer replacement costs.

Constitutionality of the AEPA: Void for Vagueness: The AEPA prohibits travel in interstate commerce or use of the mail or other facility in or interstate commerce for the purpose of causing physical disruption to the functioning of an animal enterprise that intentionally damages or causes the loss of property used by the animal enterprise (or conspiracy to do so). Defendants argued that the terms "economic damage" and "physical disruption" were not clearly defined," and included activities protected by the first amendment. The Court rejected these arguments because (1) "physical disruption has a well-understood common definition; (2) legal protest, such as letter-writing, which might cause an ancillary physical disruption is exempted from the statute; (3) defendants’ behavior – including encryption, evasion techniques, and even concessions on the website that some activities were illegal – suggests they knew their activities were illegal; and (4) the "intent" requirement means that the government must establish that the actor meant to disrupt the functioning of the enterprise, which alleviates vagueness concerns (citing Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124, 149 (2007)).

As-Applied Constitutional Challenge to AEPA: All parties agreed that, to the extent they advocated humane treatment of animals, the postings on the website fit within the rubric of the First Amendment. The question was whether they were directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless acting and likely to produce such action. Put differently, did they constitute a "true threat." Much of the speech did not. But the Court found the postings encouraging electronic civil disobedience and the dissemination of the personal information of Huntingdon employees was "more problematic."

Regarding the electronic civil disobedience, the Court held that the postings "encouraged and compelled an imminent unlawful act that was not only likely to occur, but provided the schedule by which the unlawful act was to occur. This type of communication is not protected speech." It found "ample evidence" to demonstrate that the individual defendants coordinated and controlled and participated in such activities.

Regarding dissemination of names and protests against target employees, the Court held that the defendants used past incidents to instil fear in future targets. For example, using photos of assault victims at protests. Viewed in context, the implied threats against target employees were not conditional and rightly instilled fear in the listeners, converting them to "true threats." The Court gave examples of particular instances in this category involving each defendant.

Definition of "Animal Enterprises": Defendants argued that the protest activity against companies associated with Huntingdon was not directed at "animal enterprises." The Court disagreed, finding that the "ultimate object" of the conspiracy was Huntingdon.

Actual v. Intended Loss: Defendants argued that the district court erred in instructing the jury that it could convict them for intended loss. The Court did not decide this issue, instead finding that any error would have been harmless because the government proved an actual loss in excess of the statutory threshold.

Sufficiency of Evidence/Conspiracy: Defendants challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to prove that they acted for the purpose of causing physical disruption to Huntingdon and to intentionally damage or cause the loss of Huntingdon’s property. The Court conceded that there was no direct evidence to prove a conspiracy between the defendants, but found "ample circumstantial evidence from which the jury could have inferred their agreement," to accomplish these unlawful goals. Judge Fisher dissented on this point, noting "I fail to see any evidence of an agreement to cause physical disruption to Huntingdon – as opposed to other non-animal enterprise companies affiliated with Huntingdon – or to cause damage or loss to property used by Huntingdon.

Stalking: The defendants also challenged their stalking convictions. One argued that he only intended to harass and embarrass the victims and make their lives miserable. He contrasted this type of infliction of emotional distress with the statute’s requirement that he intend to put his victims "in reasonable fear of death or bodily injury." The Court found that the invocation of the the website’s references to extreme acts of violence, coupled with protesters' use of ultimatums, went beyond harassment and embarrassment. Another defendant argued that the victims’ fears were unreasonable. The Court dismissed this argument for the same reason, adding that this particular defendant had personally threatened to burn one victim’s house down. The web administrator argued that the evidence was insufficient to convict him of any stalking-related counts. The Court found that the jury could reasonably have concluded that he aided and abetted the stalking because the website was a primary tool in it.

The Court also summarily rejected a variety of other challenges in this complicated and hard-fought case.

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