Responding to a string of firebomb attacks earlier this year and an increasing level of intimidation against scientists who perform research using animals in a laboratory environment, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law on Sunday a measure intended to provide new tools against those in the animal liberation movement who have destroyed property and threatened violence.
Whatever the reason, many of the animal researchers targeted by vandals in recent months work at the University of California, especially at the Los Angeles and Santa Cruz campuses. The university has lobbied heavily for the bill, which was sponsored by the State Assembly member Gene Mullin, who represents a district including parts of San Francisco.
The law is part of a campaign, including litigation against animal liberation groups suspected of involvement in recent incidents, to protect animal researchers from harm. The Researcher Protection Act of 2008, which is already in effect, adds several new misdemeanor offenses -- for example, against publicizing private information about, or the physical appearances of, researchers (or their immediate families) with the intent to imminently incite violence or threats of violence, and against trespassing on researchers' private property to commit a crime.
The law protects "academic researchers," which it defines as "any person lawfully engaged in academic research who is a student, trainee, or employee of UC, CSU, an accredited California community college, or a Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredited, degree-granting, nonprofit institution."
"[W]e clearly think that this law is the right step forward, it helps to offer the protections necessary for allowing our researchers to continue to do that groundbreaking research that they’re doing in a safe and secure environment," said Chris Harrington, director of national media communications for the University of California president's office.
Some critics, including in the animal rights movement, contend that in protecting researchers' academic freedom, the law goes too far in suppressing (or chilling) free expression. Some also note that the law defines as crimes actions that in many cases are already illegal, such as trespassing, and fails to define how intent can be proven.
"Really, if you examine the law closely, it certainly appears that everything that this law makes illegal was already illegal," said Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, noting that his organization was not involved in any of the activities covered in the law. "And so really the only intent of this law can actually be to, in some ways, try to curtail free-speech exercise, because the problem with laws like this is not only that in some instances they can be written vaguely and/or misinterpreted, but that in some instances they are misused by overzealous law enforcement personnel and many people can [simply] be scared by exercising their constitutional rights, and those are the things that we find very disturbing."
Jerry Vlasak, press officer at the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which publishes dispatches from the underground animal liberation movement but isn't directly related to their activities, was more blunt: Schwarzenegger, he said, is "the Terminator, if you will, of civil rights." "As far as the illegal direct action that’s occurred against these animal abusers in the U.C. system, it’s probably not going to have an effect at all." For example, he said, existing legal measures, such as a restraining order sought by UCLA, failed to stem acts of intimidation against researchers this year.
The university has pushed back hard against criticisms that the law threatens free speech. "Individuals are entitled to their views, including First Amendment-protected protests, but the kinds of violence, threats and intimidation by some animal research extremists cross the line -- in fact, the FBI considers animal rights extremists among its most serious domestic threats," says a statement on the system's Web site on the issue.
"This is a new campaign strategy that’s going after researchers at their homes by getting personal information off the Internet.... And researchers need protection," said Frankie Trull, founder and president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, which supports scientists who use animals in their work. "It’s great that so much information is available out there, but I don’t think that the intention of using it to harass and intimidate families is an appropriate use of the information."