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Lay of the Land

Oil Trumps Art | Hummer and Hummerer| Phony Fire Protection | Small Fry | A Fish With Friends | Bold Strokes | Ecoterrorist Legislation | WWatch | On Wal-Mart Pond | Updates

Hold a Bake Sale, Go to Jail

Sierra Club members, beware: Legislation has been introduced in many states–and passed in Oklahoma–that could define environmentalists and animal-rights activists as "ecoterrorist" criminals. While ostensibly aimed at groups like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front that advocate property destruction, the legislation is so sweeping and nebulous it could also cover nonviolent civil disobedience or even ordinary environmental activism. The version introduced in Texas defined terrorists as "two or more persons organized for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any person from participating in an activity involving animals or . . . natural resources." A person giving money to such a group could be charged with abetting a crime; holding a bake sale to support tree-sitters could be a terrorist offense.

The bills are particularly concerned with trespass; the Oklahoma legislation, which goes into effect in November, makes trespassing that results in damage of more than $500 a felony. The language is so vague, points out Club lobbyist Keith Smith, that "damage" could be interpreted to include EPA fines or bad publicity resulting from, say, polluted water samples collected from giant hog-raising facilities by activists. Because such samples helped win a lawsuit against the Oklahoma operations of mammoth pig-producer Seaboard Farms, the Club’s Oklahoma Chapter chair, Tom Libby, thinks the legislation is retaliation: "By making such actions a potential felony," he says, "the law is designed to intimidate anyone who might want to take on the big corporate farms." Says Smith: "This would put Erin Brockovich in jail."

The apparent goal of this type of legislation, says Peter Cannavo, a professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, "is to push environmental activism out of the realm of legitimate political discourse." In New York, the legislation would even require that personal information and mug shots of "ecoterrorists" be posted on a state-run Web site for up to three years, as some states now do with convicted sex offenders.

The template for most of the ecoterrorism bills comes from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a little-known, but influential, organization of more than 2,400 conservative lawmakers. Among its 300 corporate sponsors, which pay dues of $5,000 to $50,000 a year, are ExxonMobil and General Motors. (The legislator/members pay only $25.)

Sandy Liddy Bourne, director of ALEC’s Energy, Environment, Natural Resources, and Agriculture Task Force, denies that the bills’ language is ambiguous. "It’s very clear you have to trespass, cause damage, or cause fear" to be classified as a terrorist, she says.

The ALEC bills and similar efforts are meeting with mixed success. The Texas bill stalled in committee, and a similar one in Maine also died. Utah’s "commercial terrorism" statute prohibited protesters from entering "animal enterprises"–including via "sound wave" and "light ray." The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out that this would prohibit peaceful communication on the sidewalk in front of the business; a judge agreed and ruled the statute unconstitutional. In addition to New York, bills are being pushed by legislators in Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Oregon.

Julian Zelazney, director of an organization that tracks ecoterrorism legislation, the State Environmental Resource Center, says, "They are right-wing ideologues with an agenda of rolling back regulations, privatizing resources, and finding the way to make the most money for business. Unfortunately, they think environmental protection is in the way." And they intend to do something about it.
—Andrew Becker

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