In a decision that will have implications for the animal rights movement and its opponents, the Supreme Court today agreed to consider the appeal of anti-abortion advocates who have been hit with multi-million dollar judgments in racketeering lawsuits brought by the National Organization for Women.
The issue at hand is at what point legitimate protests become racketeering. Under the civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, NOW was able to win judgments against individuals such as Joseph Scheidler who did not personally engage in acts of violence but whom publicly approved of such violence and/or engaged in a long pattern of other harassment such as staging sit-ins outside of abortion clinics where they would prevent access to and from the clinic, often by chaining themselves in the doorways of clinics.
Juries hearing these cases have tended to agree with NOW’s claim that taken together, the persistent use of these tactics by an individual or group fits the description of racketeering and extortion under the RICO statute.
Of course, these are the same sorts of tactics commonly used by animal rights activists and groups against restaurants, fur stores and other animal enterprises. According to the Associated Press, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was one of the groups that asked the Supreme Court to accept the anti-abortionist appeal in order to clarify the rule.
PETA has been the target of at least one RICO lawsuit. After undercover activist Michelle Rokke infiltrated Huntingdon Life Sciences and came back with video tapes, pictures and other documents that PETA claimed showed abuse, HLS hit PETA up with a RICO lawsuit asking for $10 million in damages and legal fees.
PETA counsel Jeff Kerr testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime. According to Kerr,
The RICO counts in our case allege that PETA’s earlier animal cruelty investigations dating back as far as 1989 constituted a pattern of racketeering activity, including extortion through a climate of violence against Huntingdon and the other subjects of our investigation. All told, Huntingdon sought damages and legal fees exceeding $10 million. Early in the case we were slapped with a gag order which precluded us from further disseminating our findings to the public. The gag order prohibited us from cooperating with the USDA investigation of our own complaint, and this despite USDA requests for our cooperation.
PETA eventually released a settlement agreement with HLS.
One thing about PETA, by the way, is that they do not practice what they preach. According to Kerr,
PETA officers, directors and employees have repeatedly been the targets of death threats. We receive photographs of ourselves with our eyes poked out, explicit details of our own sexual torture and bloody packages of animal remains. These threats have often contained references to information disseminated by our opponents, including vivisection industry trade groups and animal abusers whom we have exposed. We do not sue our opponents under civil RICO claiming extortion or mail or wire fraud as a result of these activities. Rather, we fight those opponents in open public debates, in the media, in panel discussions, on radio and television talk shows, through letters to the editor, and by aggressively publicizing our views to rebut their positions. That is how it is meant to be in America.
Of course this is the same PETA that turned around and sued Rosie O’Donnell for $350,000 for saying that “the GAP uses only leather that is approved from PETA…” This despite the fact, that PETA had successfully lobbied for The Gap to switch its leather supplier from the Indian and Chinese suppliers it had been using.
PETA is notorious for threatening litigation over hair splitting stuff like this. PETA would have surely lost its case, but who has time to face off with these folks in court?
It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court eventually decides. Using the standards that operated in the lawsuit against Scheidler and others, PETA itself would be wide open to RICO lawsuits given the numerous statements in support of violence and terrorism that Ingrid Newkirk, Bruce Friedrich and others have made over the years, especially in combination with their various acts of non-violent civil disobedience over the years.
If the Supreme Court upholds the Scheidler verdicts, look for serious repercussions against PETA and other animal rights groups. If the Court should overturn the verdicts, however, expect an even more emboldened crowd on the Internet and elsewhere in support of animal rights terrorism.
Supreme Court to review use of RICO laws against abortion protesters. Associated Press, April 22, 2002.
Statement of Jeff Kerr, Esq., General Counsel, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Hearing Before the Subcommittee On Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary, House Of Representatives, One Hundred Fifth Congress, Second Session, July 17, 1998.