WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- Congress passed an update to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and President Bush is expected to sign it into law, but animal rights activists say the new legislation will do little to inhibit their actions against pharmaceutical companies and other animal research firms and may even spur increased extremist activities.
The biomedical research industry was pushing for the bill because they wanted laws in place to thwart new tactics employed by activists, including harassing and intimidating individual researchers and companies that do businesses with animal research firms.
"Hopefully, this will give law enforcement the tools they need to address more quickly and swiftly that kind of campaign," Frankie Trull, president of Foundation for Biomedical Research, a group supported by industry, told United Press International.
In recent years, animal activists have begun targeting homes of individual researchers and executives of pharmaceutical companies, including threats to take further action if they do not cease their business with animal research firms, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences. Activists have also sent threatening letters to shareholders of pharmaceutical companies and waged a successful campaign to prevent Huntingdon from being listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
"Right now, a researcher who's under attack really has no where to go and this will help them get law enforcement attention," Trull added. "We're hoping this new law will help make the climate more friendly and those that seek to end all animal research will do so through legitimate means as opposed to this kind of intimidation and harassment."
Animal rights advocates, however, think the legislation may provoke the very kind of activities it intends to prevent.
"They could've taken a step that will create their worst nightmare," Camille Hankins, who represents Win Animal Rights, told UPI. "The thing they were afraid of was destruction, damage to labs and vandalism, but this could be the catalyst for a lot of that."
Hankins said the threat of penalties of up to 20 years or life in prison that the legislation carries may drive more people underground because there will be little incentive to remain "above ground" with one's identity revealed.
"Why be above ground, why not go below ground?" she said.
The legislation carries various penalties, ranging from a fine or 1 year imprisonment for violations that do not instill a sense of fear of bodily injury or death or economic damages less than $10,000 to more severe fines or prison terms for actions resulting in injury or larger economic loss. The stiffest penalty is life imprisonment for violations that result in the death of a person.
Hankins thought the pharmaceutical industry used its influence to get the legislation passed and noted that several large drug manufacturers were cited as members of the Animal Enterprise Protection Coalition, which was a list of groups established by National Association for Biomedical Research that supported the bill.
"I think this legislation was bought and paid for, by the pharmaceutical industry primarily," she said.
Pharmaceutical companies listed as members of the Coalition included Boehringer Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Roche and Wyeth. The Biotechnology Industry Organization was also on the list.
Hankins asserted that the legislation infringed upon rights of free speech and assembly granted by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
"It's overly broad, overly vague and restricts freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, so no doubt someone will have to be a test case that will go all the way up to the Supreme Court," she said.
However, Trull said the law specifically states that it does not restrict any rights protected by the First Amendment.
"Lawful boycotting, protesting and demonstrating is all protected," she said. The law is aimed more at preventing threats and intimidation of researchers and firms that conduct business with animal research enterprises, she added.
To make a charge stick, businesses will have to prove that the actions caused them financial damage.
"This is a very responsible piece of legislation, meaning everybody can't just prosecute for no reason," Trull said.
Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a trauma surgeon and spokesman for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, told UPI he thought the bill would have little impact on animal rights activists.
"As far as the underground liberation movement, it won't have any impact at all because they don't really care about those laws," Vlasak said. "Their activities -- sabotaging, liberating animals -- are already illegal so just adding one more law won't make much difference."
The legislation's effect on the above ground movement would also be muted, Vlasak said. "I don't think it's going to make a huge difference in the above ground movement because they've (law enforcement) already gone after people who were conducting effective protest campaigns," he said.
The net effect on the above ground movement is that it could "make people more seriously consider going underground," he said.
Vlasak may be one example of an activist targeted by law enforcement authorities. His house along with the homes of five other animal rights activists in California were raided by the FBI and the Santa Monica Police Department October 31.
Thousands of dollars worth of items, including his computer, were seized, but Vlasak said he was never charged with a crime or informed of the reasons for the raid. His attorney has been trying to obtain a copy of the affidavit but so far the authorities have not complied.