Monday, May 22, 2006

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing today on proposed legislation aimed at outlawing what its proponents say is economic terrorism by animal rights activists.

“If terrorism means being frightened for your children and having to check underneath your car every morning, this is terrorism,” said Frankie Trull of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an advocacy group for institutions and companies that use live animals in medical research.

The bill is necessary, Miss Trull said, to plug two loopholes in the existing law — the use of so-called tertiary or third-party targeting and the organization of campaigns of virtual harassment over the Internet.

She said that U.S. animal rights activists — learning from successful campaigns waged in Britain — had begun to target the investors, lenders and service providers that every company needs to keep operating, forcing them to stop doing business with animal-research firms.

“Banks are not equipped to deal with death threats against their employees because they’re doing business” with a targeted company, she said.

Current law protects animal researchers from “physical disruption” of their business, but does not criminalize campaigns directed against those who do business with researchers, or against individual employees. Nor does it cover harassment and intimidation that might financially cripple a company without any “physical disruption.”

Civil liberties advocates have slated the bill’s provisions as overbroad and unnecessary, charging that legitimate protests that damage a company’s bottom line might be criminalized by the new law. “The bill will effectively chill and deter Americans from exercising their First Amendment rights to advocate for reforms in the treatment of animals,” says the American Civil Liberties Union.

The new bill’s backers point to what they say is an aggressive and very successful campaign of harassment and intimidation aimed at those doing business with a British animal-research firm, Huntingdon Life Sciences, that culminated last year with the company being denied a listing on the New York Stock Exchange after the exchange was targeted by campaigners.

Huntingdon’s U.S. parent company, Life Sciences Research Inc., was told by the exchange in August it would be listed, but the decision was rescinded the next month, less than an hour before trading was scheduled to begin. NYSE officials declined to comment this week.

Miss Trull said the NYSE decision was “very troubling. It sends a signal to any activist that doesn’t like what any company is doing that they can stop it being listed by threatening the New York Stock Exchange.”

According to federal prosecutors, the campaign against Life Sciences Research in the United States was led by a group called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, or SHAC. The SHAC Web site publicly posted personal information about Huntingdon employees, including home addresses and phone numbers; names and ages of their children and where they go to school; auto license-plate numbers; and the churches they attend.

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