Adventures in Ethics and Science

The past couple years in California have been scary ones for academic researchers who conduct research with animals (as well as for their neighbors), what with firebombs, home invasions, significant intentional damage to their properties and threats to their safety.

In response to a ratcheting up of attacks from animals rights groups, universities have lobbied for the Researcher Protection Act of 2008, which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law on September 28.


As described in Inside Higher Ed:

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.”

I actually heard rumblings, as the precise scope of the bill was being negotiated, that it might apply to researchers in the UC system, but not in the CSU system (of which San Jose State University is a part). I am pleased that the final version covers all academic researchers in California.

As for the law itself, on the one hand it’s nice to see California lawmakers recognizing that the climate has changed for researchers and that this is problematic. Whether you like animal research or not, it’s a problem for everyone when people try to make their point with an incendiary device on the doorstep.

On the other hand, I wonder how easy it will be to enforce the new law. Broadcasting information about the home address and license plate number of a researcher, and which classrooms at the elementary school his kids are in, strikes me as an invasion of that researcher’s privacy, but proving that the information is being broadcast “with the intent to imminently incite violence or threats of violence” could be really hard. (I wonder, too, the extent to which the internet will be named as a co-conspirator in making private information public.)

According to the Inside Higher Ed article, others have raised concerns about the law:

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.”

Firebombing, trespassing, assaulting, and threatening assault are all crimes already. It’s probably even a good bet that many of the animal rights activists committing these crimes knew they were illegal when they were committing them. Restating that they are illegal even when directed against researchers doesn’t do much to change the animal rights activists decision process. I’m not sure it even does much in terms of penalties in the event that the perpetrators are caught and tried.

And I think it would be a mistake to curtail free speech around issues of research with non-human animals. There ought to be an exchange of ideas and reasoned arguments. Researchers ought to hear what members of the public thinks, and members of the public ought to hear what researchers think. However, not all speech is protected. Just as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie-house is not protected speech, neither should yelling “Firebomb!” while distributing the home addresses of your local researchers. The tougher call is when you distribute the home addresses, while uttering innocuous words, to the people who end up having a thing for homemade incendiary devices.

So, I’m left not sure how I feel about this law. Will it have a certain psychological value, telling researchers that the state is behind them, even if it doesn’t actually make much illegal that wasn’t already illegal? Will it end up curtailing free speech, possibly driving more people to pursue “direct actions” against researchers because their attempts at dialogue* are frustrated?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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*This is not to imply that animal rights activists who are behind firebombings, assaults, and other forms of intimidation are interested in a dialogue. Clearly, they aren’t. (Nor, I’d argue, are the folks at PETA or HSUS.) But not everyone with concerns about animal welfare — or even about animal rights — falls into these camps. Making PETA and ALF the only game in town strikes me as a strategic mistake.

Comments

  1. #1 CW
    October 6, 2008

    So, by this, publicizing private information about, or the physical appearances of, people (or their immediate families) with the intent to imminently incite violence or threats of violence, and against trespassing on people’s private property to commit a crime is OK as long as the victims aren’t doing specific research at qualifying institutions? While this is certainly a welcome and long overdue step, shouldn’t such protections apply to everyone. Why is negotiation needed to determine who should and who should not be protected from such thuggery?

  2. #2 Clinton
    October 6, 2008

    possibly driving more people to pursue “direct actions” against researchers because their attempts at dialogue* are frustrated?

    Why is it when you write “dialogue” what I read is “getting their way”?

    There is no problem with the dialogue. Particularly in these days of the internets and blogz and all that, people who oppose the use of animals in research can sound off to their heart’s content. It is very likely they can find a venue for dialog with animal research supporters as well. They are free to lobby their local Congressional representative. With just a little effort they can probably get on their local nightly news. “Dialogue” is freely available.

    People on the animal rights bandwagon who are “driven to direct action” are not being driven by a failure of dialogue but rather by a failure to get their way. It is a failure on their part to convince a majority that they are correct in their extremist views.

  3. #3 Lab Lemming
    October 6, 2008

    “There ought to be an exchange of ideas and reasoned arguments.”

    How does this bill effect that? The free speech that is curtailed is more along the lines of “Dr. X’s daughter goes to school Y via the following bus route.”

    And even then, this speech is only curtailed if you can prove that the information is provided to enable criminal activity. An activist who uses this information to barrage Dr. X’s daughter with pamphlets and wave signs at her is still protected by the first amendment.

    Even with this law, animal rights protesters are significantly less tightly regulated than anti-abortion protesters, despite having a significantly more violent recent history.

  4. #4 Janet D. Stemwedel
    October 6, 2008

    I have not perused the wording of the law in great detail (and undoubtedly, since legalese is not my native tongue, I’d probably miss some of the nuance even if I had). So, I can’t really speak from authority as far as what precisely this new law will change.

    I agree that the things the law is clearly criminalizing are bad, and would be bad directed against anyone, whether s/he was a researcher conducting research with animals or not. I don’t know what’s already forbidden by the other laws already on the books.

    I understand fears that enforcement of the new law might go overboard in terms of restricting free speech of sorts not covered by the law. I think the emergence of “free speech zones” that basically corral demonstrators very far away from the people whom they most hope to reach with their demonstrations is a worrisome trend. (At the same time, I agree that the protocols with abortion clinic protesters would be a very good place to look as far as balancing free speech and personal safety.)

    And Clinton:

    People on the animal rights bandwagon who are “driven to direct action” are not being driven by a failure of dialogue but rather by a failure to get their way.

    I think this is probably right. There are *maybe* some people on the edge, who are feeling like they aren’t being heard, whose frustration might lead to them getting swept up in someone else’s direct action. But there are a whole lot of folks who don’t get that dialogue doesn’t always result in your argument winning the day.

  5. #5 Clinton
    October 7, 2008

    There are *maybe* some people on the edge, who are feeling like they aren’t being heard

    Some of this is the nakedest sort of personal hubris and narcissism. Take the recent financial storm and the bailout. I call my Congress critter and complain, say. Said critter comes up with a position based on his/her entire constituency (and other, er, factors). Then I bitch and complain that my personal nuance of perspective wasn’t read out by my Critter on the floor of the house and that the system isn’t listening to me personally so there must be some problem.

    This is what each new fresh faced undergrad or hippiecrust down the pike seems to think when complaining that UCLA or their local professors or whatnot isn’t “dialoguing” with them by holding the same old useless “hearings” between animal researchers, the institution and the extremists. Sometimes, my young friends, your position is far from unique and has already been raised in the greater dialogue. Sorry, but you don’t get special treatment just because you are young, smart and anguished. Stating the same old issues more loudly isn’t “dialogue” and when the system can’t expend the time to deal with each N=347th of you individually it isn’t evidence of a problem…