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Police blotter: Web at heart of ecoterror lawsuit

Animal rights activists accused of vandalism claim that their Web site represents legitimate free speech.

"Police blotter" is a weekly report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Animal rights activists allegedly used the Web to coordinate vandalizing of homes and cars of biomed company employees and threaten their lives.

When: California Court of Appeals, First District, ruled on October 12.

Outcome: Injunction against Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA upheld.

What happened, according to court documents:
The animal rights group called Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA enjoys the rare distinction of being a convicted ecoterrorist.

In March, a federal jury convicted SHAC (and six SHAC members) of terrorism and Internet stalking--the first such convictions under the federal Animal Enterprise Protection Act. In September, SHAC's former president Kevin Kjonaas was sentenced to 72 months in prison and Jacob Conroy, SHAC's Webmaster, was sentenced to 48 months (PDF).

A few years earlier, SHAC was embroiled in a campaign against a San Francisco-area biopharmaceutical company called Chiron, which identified the hepatitis C virus in 1986 and made a blood screening test possible. Chiron is now part of Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics. SHAC accuses the company of mistreating lab animals.

In 2003, SHAC targeted Chiron. It posted on its Web site the names, home phone numbers, home addresses, and bank account details of Chiron employees (and information on their spouses and children as well). SHAC singled out three Chiron officials for special attention and home visits, which a judge has described as "a euphemism for a terrifying and often destructive nighttime invasion."

Alarm devices were turned on and left at the target houses. Foul-smelling chemicals were poured on porches. Bullhorns were used at midnight. A female manager's home address was posted on falsely advertising an estate sale. Bombs were detonated at Chiron's headquarters. Animal feces were smeared on employees' doors. Windows were smashed by masked thugs at the home of a Chiron's general counsel.

SHAC's Web site linked to a statement saying: "The Chiron team, how are you sleeping? You never know when your house, your car even, might go boom. Who knows, that new car in the parking lot may be packed with explosives. Or maybe it will be a shot in the dark."

Chiron eventually sued, asking for an injunction to end the harassment. The lawsuit also cited trespass, employees' right to privacy protected by the California Constitution, and the civil offense of intrusion into private affairs. A trial judge granted the injunction.

What makes this case relevant to Police Blotter is that SHAC allegedly used the Internet to coordinate these illegal activities. It sent e-mail to readers before the attack on the lawyer's home saying it would be a "weekend of action" including a "home demo." When the vandals showed up at his home, they carried a banner with the address of the SHAC Web site.

When granting the injunction, the trial judge wrote: "The information disseminated by (SHAC) on its website relates to plaintiffs' claims as evidence of the existence and modus operandi of a conspiracy (to aid and abet) the alleged unlawful harassment and threats."

In its appeal, SHAC claimed that the injunction was incorrectly granted and violated its free speech rights.

The case raises the obvious question: How far do the First Amendment's protections stretch? They probably shield activists who post personal information about corporate executives, as long as they're not directly involved in or threatening illegal activity. In a U.S. Supreme Court case called Watts v. United States, for instance, the justices tried to make a distinction between (legal) political hyperbole and (illegal) threats.

But drawing the line can be tricky. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals a Web site branding doctors that perform abortions as "baby butchers" and listing their addresses was permissible. But the full appeals court overturned that decision in 2003 (PDF). A version of the "Nuremberg Files" remains online.

The appeals court in the SHAC case ruled against the group, saying that threats of home visits and publishing home addresses were "true threats" not protected by the First Amendment. It also said that SHAC's writings were "likely to incite or produce imminent lawless action" and upheld the injunction.

Excerpts from the California First District Court of Appeal's opinion (PDF):
The centerpiece of SHAC's campaign against Chiron is what SHAC describes on its website as a "home visit," a euphemism for a terrifying and often destructive night time invasion. Three Chiron employees in its Emeryville headquarters were singled out as recipients of these visits...

Linda Short, Chiron's Vice President for Corporate Resources, was also a subject of SHAC USA's "visits." Short's home address and her home telephone numbers were published on the "targets" section of SHAC USA's web page. On May 15, 2003, a group of people arrived at her house in the middle of the night...On one occasion, a group of individuals smeared animal feces on the front and back entrances to Short's house, threw mangled stuffed animals in her front yard, and spray-painted slogans, including "puppy killer" and "drop HLS" on her front walkway and the sidewalk. On another occasion, Short discovered that, during the night, someone had permanently etched onto the front and back windshields of her car the slogans "puppy killer" and "drop HLS."

On the night of August 28, 2003, two bombs were detonated at Chiron's headquarters in Emeryville. SHAC USA's president, Kevin Kjonaas, made a public statement that SHAC USA shared the passion of the bombers and that Chiron and its employees should be "very worried."

SHAC USA posted a link on its web site to a statement by a group that took responsibility for the bombing. This group, "The Revolutionary Cells," stated that: "You might be able to protect your buildings, but can you protect the homes of every employee?"

Less than a month later, SHAC USA again linked to another statement by the Revolutionary Cells, which read: "Hey Sean Lance, and the rest of the Chiron team, how are you sleeping? You never know when your house, your car even, might go boom. Who knows, that new car in the parking lot may be packed with explosives. Or maybe it will be a shot in the dark."

SHAC USA argues that it did not organize the home visits, or authorize or ratify them. The record supports a contrary conclusion. SHAC USA published the information used by activists to target Chiron employees, along with information scheduling these home visits and information instructing activists on how to conduct a "home visit." SHAC USA also effectively ratified this conducted by announcing, with approval, the results of these activities and encouraging persons to continue the harassment. Taken together, this evidence is sufficient on which to base a conspiracy claim.