The Supreme Court has decided that it will not hear the SHAC 7 case, a landmark civil rights and free speech case involving a campaign against Huntington Life Sciences, an animal testing lab located in New Jersey and England.
Lauren Gazzola, Kevin Kjonaas, Jacob Conroy, Darius Fullmer, Josh Harper and Andy Stepanian were indicted on charges of conspiring to financially disrupt a vivisection lab in New Jersey. Their crime was running a website exposing, and opposing, the lab and its business partners. All six were found guilty in what federal prosecutors called “a litmus test of protected speech on the internet.” Thanks to federal law known then as the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, now the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), the six were sentenced to a combined 23 years in federal prison. Kevin Kjonaas is still in prison.
What is ironic about the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the SHAC 7 case is that this comes one week after the Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church had the legal right to protest at the funerals of military personnel. The WBC is the group that stands outside of funerals with signs that read “God Hates Fags.” The court felt it was vitally important to hear their case, and ruled that their speech is protected. People may not like their beliefs, but they have a right as Americans to express them under the First Amendment.
Yet the six activists falling under the SHAC 7 had their freedom taken away for speech that should also have been protected. What is the difference between the SHAC 7 and Westboro Baptist Church? The threat of corporate profits.
The bigots that stand outside of funerals don’t threaten the profits of large corporations like Huntington Life Sciences, the pharmaceutical industry, major universities that profit from animal torture, entertainment establishments like circuses and race tracks, the fashion industry and Big Agribusiness that confines, tortures and murders 10 billion sentient beings each year in the United States.
What is protected in the United States is corporations. They are legally considered persons and as such the Supreme Court recently ruled that they can give as much money as they like to influence political campaigns in our democracy. Just as the government’s job is to protect the interests of corporations, the Supreme Court has now followed in lock step.
The Supreme Court has no interest in protecting our rights as activists, so we need to continue the fight for free speech on our own. Animal rights and environmental activists are the low hanging fruit that the government has decided to go after first, but antiwar, civil rights, immigrant rights, and other activists must take notice as well.
A few days ago the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional rights of religiously insane bigots to picket the funerals of dead soldiers. I was one of the few people who celebrated that decision, because I feel that speech, especially when protest related, needs the most stringent protection.
Yesterday, this same court refused to hear a case about myself and five co-defendants. (The seventh defendant, an organization known as Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, is now defunct and could not appeal.) We had been convicted several years ago for speech activity far less gruesome than that shouted and displayed by the “God Hates Fags” zealots, and sent to federal prison for terms ranging from one to six years. During the three years I was inside I lost my long-term partner, my father and my grandmother both died, and I witnessed things that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I was punished severely for the crime of advocating sending black sheets of paper through fax machines as a form of protest, and for vocally supporting those who break the law to further the cause of animal liberation. This appeal was my last chance to not have to spend the rest of my life as a convicted felon and terrorist, not to mention having the ability for some financial security. You see, the judge in our case also imposed a million-dollar restitution that I will never, ever be able to pay in full.
So why is one group of people allowed to protest the funerals of soldiers and another group prohibited from advocating electronic civil disobedience? Well, perhaps it’s because dead soldiers don’t have a lobby the size of the one owned by pharmaceuticals, petrochemical companies, multinational banks, and the insurance industry. The movement that I was a part of butted heads with the likes of the most powerful companies on earth, from Shell to Citibank to Marsh and McLennan. The crazy thing was that we often won in these battles, and so the people who own the mechanisms of governance in this country took to Washington DC and spent millions and millions of dollars to have us put away. And yesterday, they got away with it.
This case has taken a lot from me, but it hasn’t taken the spark of revolutionary anger that I felt when I first saw the undercover footage taken inside the labs of Huntingdon Life Sciences. I have been beaten and imprisoned and watched and monitored and slandered and disenfranchised, but none of that has removed the resolve I have to see animals freed from human imperialism. The battle continues, and I will carry on fighting so long as I draw breath.
In a word, the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the SHAC7 appeal is disappointing. From the very beginning, this case seemed like an absurd joke. “They are charging us with what?” It would have been funny at the time if we weren’t sitting in a jail cell in the basement of a federal building. At that point the charges seemed like merely a scare tactic. Surely they couldn’t really intend to bring something like this to trial. Surprisingly, they did, and surprisingly, they won. Every step of this process, from indictment to trial to appeal has felt the same: a clearly unconstitutional charge that couldn’t possibly survive judicial scrutiny. I have spent the past five years living with a certainty that our court system cannot truly be this flawed and this co-opted. I find it hard to comprehend that we are at the end of this long road. Somehow the prosecution and the corporations they work for got away with this swindle, and the supposed guardians of justice slept through the entire process.
While this situation is disappointing, are we really surprised? If justice walked the innocent would be protected. My co-defendants and I would not have had to spend our youths in struggle. Consider the 500 animals who are still needlessly killed by Huntingdon Life Sciences each day. I am not the first to experience injustice at the hands of this system. But rather than spend our time endlessly counting these wrongs, my concern is what each of us are going to do today to fight for a more just world tomorrow.
When people reflect on last week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Westboro Baptist Church’s “right” to assemble and spew hate, it’s easy to draw parallels between the ruling in their favor and what was expected to be a ruling in our favor, or at least a ruling of sorts – but neither happened, and attempting to do so is problematic. I wholeheartedly support freedom of speech, and differing views in the marketplace of ideas, but there is little space for wanton intolerance and hatred.
Hatred for some is polarized and concentrated like in the case of Westboro; for others it is less pronounced like the cultural acceptance of the ideas that animals exist only for our use. SHAC existed to intercede and to throw a wrench in a culturally accepted mechanism of hatred towards non-human animals, specifically by shutting down a criminally cruel institution that was responsible for the deaths of 180,000 animals each year. We were victorious on countless occasions and we developed tactical models that left the corporate world feeling vulnerable. Politics is a pay-to-play sport and we were taking a lot of money out of the game. We understood they would try to come after us simply because we were effective. What we did not expect was for them to dilute and at times pervert the same constitution that founded their government in efforts to do so.
Today is bittersweet because as the constitution loses, the animal rights activists win another round as we watch the powers that be destroy the house they built in an attempt to silence us, something they would not have done if they had not been losing. Today speaks to the power we have as individuals to create stiff resistance and lasting change.