In the wake of firebombs and harassment of researchers at several University of California campuses, both houses of the California Legislature have now passed bills designed to give new legal tools to those who find themselves the target of animal rights extremists.
While there are differences in the Assembly and Senate versions of the legislation, and California's budget woes have held up non-financial bills, both proposals passed overwhelmingly, and university officials now believe that there is a good chance of a new law being enacted. While the attacks that have taken place violate some existing laws, scientists in California have been demanding additional protection -- especially as the actions against them have shifted from their laboratories to their homes.
The legislation relates to such attacks. The Senate bill, for example, which passed Friday, makes it a new misdemeanor crime to publish information about an academic researcher or the researcher's family members, such as where they live, "with the intent that another person imminently use the information to commit a crime involving violence or a threat of violence."
Another part of the bill would make it a misdemeanor to enter the residential real property of an academic researcher "for the purpose of chilling, preventing the exercise of, or interfering with the researcher's academic freedom." The bill defines "academic researcher" as any student, trainee or employee at any of the state's public colleges or universities, or others accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and "academic freedom" is described as "the lawful performance, dissemination or publication of academic research or instruction."
In discussion of the legislation, there has been general agreement that researchers at the University of California are facing harassment at unprecedented levels and need more protection. The main concerns among lawmakers considering the bill have come from those worried that the measures related to publicizing information about researchers and their families and addresses might violate the First Amendment. University officials see the measure as necessary because of a pattern in which such information appears on animal rights Web sites and is shortly after followed by a firebombing. The measures on publicizing information about researchers are modeled on similar legislation that has been used to protect state legislators and also those who are involved in providing abortion services.
The University of California has been pushing for the legislation for months, but interest increased this month, when firebombs ignited on the same Saturday morning at the house of one researcher and the car of another from the university's Santa Cruz campus.
In February, a firebomb went off at the home of a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles whose home had been flooded in October. The University of California at Berkeley has reported that in the last year, more than two dozen professors, researchers and staff members have been harassed at their homes or offices by animal rights activists. The targets of all of these incidents have been identified as researchers who work with animals.
It is unclear why the University of California -- and especially UCLA -- have emerged as such targets. While the campuses involved do work with animals, so do many other institutions that have not experienced similar incidents. But as the attacks have continued, officials at UCLA and elsewhere in the system have talked about the need to go on the offensive against illegal extremist groups, rather than just trying to set up better security for researchers. And part of that effort has been to push the legislation now moving in the Legislature. University officials have repeatedly stressed that they are not opposed to non-violent legal protests or activism on behalf of animals, but rather to break-ins, vandalism and physical threats.
In an op-ed this month in the Los Angeles Times, Frankie Trull, president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which works on behalf of universities and businesses that conduct studies with animals, said that what the University of California is experiencing reflects a general escalation in the fight over animal research. "Over the last several years, militants have shifted their focus from breaking into research labs and institutions to targeting researchers and their families at home," she wrote. "In the past, they protested against scientists who work with higher species, such as nonhuman primates and dogs; now, they are even targeting researchers who use fruit flies."
The only strong public criticism of the legislation is coming from some animal rights groups. The organizations that are believed to have carried out the firebombs and other attacks are underground, and thus can't be reached. But the North American Animal Liberation Press Office publishes their statements and frequently speaks on their behalf.
Jerry W. Vlasak, a press officer for the group, said that the bills seek to punish legitimate protest and that the underground movement would not be affected. Those taking action against university researchers, he said, "are already breaking numerous, more onerous laws in their efforts to facilitate the freedom of non-human animals being tortured to death in research laboratories like those of the University of California system."
He said that the legislation fits a pattern in which "throughout history, whenever a struggle for liberation has become increasingly successful in its goals of fighting oppression, the oppressor has increased the repression, imprisoned and murdered more liberationists, and ultimately fallen at the hands of those who sought freedom."
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