Going on the Offensive Against Animal 'Liberationists'

February 21, 2008

As a battleground for the animal liberation movement, the University of California at Los Angeles has weathered threats, intimidation and property damage directed against several of its researchers over the past few years. Today -- two weeks after a firebomb went off at the same professor's house that in October was flooded with a garden hose -- the university moved beyond law enforcement, the bully pulpit and security reinforcements and filed a lawsuit against three groups and five individuals.

The suit, which will be filed formally in state court this morning, is the latest in a series of steps the campus has taken against activists who view their tactics -- which have included attempting to use Molotov cocktails on researchers' doorsteps and sending a package filled with razor blades -- as legitimate protest against experiments and testing that sometimes involves harming or killing animals. After some faculty members' families had received harassing calls and messages, the university announced in 2006 a strategy that encompassed possible legal action against harassment; improving security of laboratories and faculty members' homes and families; lobbying for legislation against such tactics; and posting reward money for information leading to arrests (currently $170,000). It is already cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force in a criminal investigation.

"Enough is enough," said UCLA chancellor Gene Block in a prepared statement. "We're not willing to wait until somebody is injured before taking legal action to protect our faculty and administrators from terrorist tactics, violence and harassment." He added, "It is imperative to provide a safe environment for our faculty to conduct research -- research that leads to new medicines and treatments that benefit our society and is conducted in compliance with stringent federal laws and university guidelines."

The university will present arguments at a hearing this morning to secure a temporary restraining order against the defendants, and it expects a hearing on a preliminary injunction in two or three weeks. The suit ultimately seeks a permanent injunction against harassment of UCLA staff and researchers, or any actions seen to aid in such harassment. While the studies conducted with animals at UCLA are not at all unusual for institutions with major biomedical research programs, the university -- many believe because of its Southern California location -- has become the focus of activity of groups opposed to any research with animals.

In an added wrinkle, several of the groups are "underground" with members who are not publicly known. The groups named in the suit are the Animal Liberation Front, which was named by the FBI in 2005 as a top domestic terrorist threat; the Animal Liberation Brigade; and the UCLA Primate Freedom Project, an independently run local chapter of a national umbrella group whose members are often students. The university's announcement stated that some of the individuals named in the lawsuit have "recently been the subjects of temporary restraining orders and injunctions prohibiting them from harassing employees affiliated with the City of Los Angeles and private institutions." It is not clear how the university would approach the discovery phase of litigation to obtain the identities of the groups' leaders.

"It’s unfortunate that this had to come about, but we’re glad that they are challenging this kind of illegal activity and not letting it stand," said Mary Hanley, the executive director of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which supports "humane animal use" in research, education and product testing. "Law enforcement have been frustrated for years in trying to identify, discover and prosecute these people, and because of that it’s a continuing campaign and maybe this is one small step towards getting it under control. We applaud UCLA for taking this step, and sorry that they have to."

The lawsuit specifically seeks an injunction against any further violence, threats of violence, vandalism or threats of vandalism against animal researchers or those who support animal research. It also seeks an order to prevent violations of noise ordinances, since members of the groups named in the suit have (loudly) protested outside researchers' homes; and an injunction against publicly posting personal information of UCLA personnel, as the UCLA group has on its Web site. Under "Targets," it lists pictures, addresses, phone numbers and other contact information that could be used to encourage harassment against certain professors. According to the university's announcement, the suit "also asks a judge to order the defendants to post information on their Web sites indicating that the restraining order prohibits certain activities relating to the UCLA personnel."

The October flooding incident was directed against a professor, Edythe London, who was also the target of a firebombing attempt earlier this month. ALF claimed responsibility in a message that read, in part: "One more thing Edythe, water was our second choice, fire was our first. We compromised because we in the ALF don't risk harming animals human and non human and we don't risk starting brush fires. It would have been just as easy to burn your house down Edythe. As you slosh around your flooded house consider yourself fortunate this time. We will not stop until UCLA discontinues its primate vivisection programe [sic]." The anonymous Web site that posted the message described London as a "primate vivisector" and said she was targeted for "torturing non-human animals to death in outdated and unnecessary experiments." (London has not been speaking to the media for privacy reasons.)

While the underground groups could not be reached for comment, a group that supports them is the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which posts anonymous messages that sometimes advocate violence. A spokesman, Jerry Vlasak, said it was an "above-ground" organization that is "supportive of animal liberation activities." He defended the activities of people who have attacked UCLA research. "These are activists who are willing to risk their own lives and freedom in order to help animals," he said. "I don’t think it’s much of a reach from a moral or ethical standpoint" to support someone who responded to an attack on his pet dog to someone who worked to prevent harm done to animals in research laboratories, he added.

“It would be like suing the IRA," Vlasak said of UCLA's litigation. "These people don’t exist in any sort of organizational form.” He also predicted that the strategy was "bound to fail" on First Amendment grounds.

UCLA successfully pursued a similar legal strategy in 1989, when it obtained a permanent injunction against activists who had demonstrated at researchers' homes. At the University of Iowa, by contrast, similar issues were met mainly with a law-enforcement strategy. Cornell University president David Skorton confronted the issue publicly and before the U.S. Senate in 2005 when he was president of Iowa, defending protesters' free expression rights but drawing the line at harassment.

"It’s a really important question because we do have to find a way to have civilized debate about issues where society has mixed opinions," he said in an interview. "In this particular case, polls of the public more than once have shown in general very strong support for animal research because people understand that virtually every medical discovery in recent era has had a part of the research done using animal models in the vast majority of fields."

Skorton added that the treatment of animals in such research was "a critical concept," and that adopting guidelines and safeguards -- and ensuring that the work could not otherwise be done without animals -- was important to research. "I do think it’s critically important to take seriously the need to do animal research ... in an appropriate fashion and to treat the animal subjects with dignity and with a humane sense of care. I think it’s very, very important. And secondly, I think it’s important to maintain a dialogue about how to do that better."

But, far from protected speech, the attacks at Iowa -- in which animal liberation activists broke into a laboratory, poured acid on the floor and let loose some 300 rodents that "likely suffered and died as a result," he said in his Senate testimony -- were "way over the line," he said.

And while he acknowledged the difficult issue of where free speech ends and harassment begins, he said that the posting of faculty members' contact information, like at UCLA, resulted directly in harassment and threatening activity. (Some researchers at Iowa had magazine subscriptions purchased in their name, for example.)

"As a long-time student of the writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I recognize several critical and undeniable differences between the criminal behavior that is the focus of my comments and that of classic practitioners of civil disobedience," he said to the Senate panel in 2005.

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