Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests
Vajnai v. Hungary
Closed Contracts Expression
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision rejecting a constitutional challenge to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), by a group of animal activists who alleged their free speech rights were chilled by threat of prosecution under the Act. The District Court had dismissed the suit, finding the Plaintiffs had no standing to sue. The Court of Appeals reasoned that AETA contained sufficient First Amendment protection against prosecution for the activities in which the plaintiffs wanted to participate. In reaching its decision the Court looked at the history of enforcement of the statute, the government’s intent to prosecute, and the limiting language in the statute itself and stated that the “plaintiffs’ fear of prosecution under AETA is based on speculation that the Government will enforce the Act pursuant to interpretations it has never adopted and now explicitly rejects. Such unsubstantiated and speculative fear is not a basis for standing.”
The Plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals for an en banc review, which was denied. They then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. On November 10, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari.
In 2011, plaintiffs Sarahjane Blum, Ryan Shapiro, Lana Lehr, Lauren Gazzola, and Iver Robert Johnson, III brought this action in District Court in Massachuetts alleging the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was unconstitutional and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The lower court dismissed the suit, finding the Plaintiffs had no standing to sue. This was appealed to the Court of Appeals. Several organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Association of the Bar of New York filed amicus briefs supporting the Plaintiffs in the appeal.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the district court.
The plaintiffs are animal rights activists and brought this action challenging the constitutionality of AETA, alleging (1) the statute was overbroad, (2) the statute failed for content and viewpoint neutrality, and (3) the statute was vague. They submitted that they didn’t intend to cause damage to property or persons, but were nevertheless in fear of prosecution based on the provisions of the AETA which had prevented them from engaging in lawful protest activity and chilled their freedom of speech rights. The plaintiffs stated that they wanted to create documentary films about animal abuse and conditions on foie gras farms, attend anti-fur protests, and engage in letter writing campaigns.
The AETA provides:
The Court noted that in these type of lawsuits, challenging the constitutionality of a statute under the First Amendment, there are two ways in which the Plaintiff can establish standing to sue. The first is if they can establish an intention to act in a way that would put them under the purview of the statute, and there is a threat of prosecution. The second is if they are currently chilled from engaging in speech for fear of prosecution under the statute. Both of these require a realistic danger of prosecution, that is more than mere speculation.
The Court looked at the history of enforcement of the statute, the government’s intent to prosecute, and the limiting language in the statute itself. The Court noted the government’s statement that, under its interpretation of the statute, it would not prosecute the plaintiffs for the activities they wished to engage in. Further, there was no history of enforcement of the AETA in respect of activities similar to those proposed by the plaintiffs. Finally, the Court found the language in the statute prohibiting interference with lawful First Amendment activities was a sufficient safeguard.
The plaintiffs argued that subsection (a)(2)(A) was substantially overbroad because it intended to limit any expressive conduct that results in loss of profits to an animal enterprise. The Court disagreed, finding the rules of construction in the statute prohibiting the prosecution of lawful conduct provided sufficient protection under the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs further argued that under this section plaintiff Lauren Gazzola had a fear of prosecution because she wished to participate in peaceful protests against certain animal enterprises. However, the Court was not convinced that this created more than a mere speculation of prosecution because Gazzola did not allege any intent to damage property or cause bodily harm.
Finally, the plaintiffs alleged a facial attack on the statute as overly vague, and that it could “reasonably be interpreted to criminalize any conspiracy (or attempt) to damage or interfere with the operations of an animal enterprise, even when there is no intent to or accomplishing of any damage to destruction of property or causing fear of serious bodily injury or death.” Based on the rules of construction and the legislative history of the AETA (illustrating that the Act targeted acts like bombing and arson), the Court found no support for this interpretation.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case contracts expression by upholding an Act that is overbroad and vague because it allows for non-violent protesters who only cause property damage to face criminal penalties of up to twenty years in prison. The Center for Constitutional Rights and other organizations have published material speaking out against the constitutionality of this Act.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
As a decision of the Court of Appeals in the First Circuit, this decision binds all courts in the first circuit.
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