Global Freedom of Expression

United States v. Johnson

Closed Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Non-verbal Expression
  • Date of Decision
    November 8, 2017
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Affirmed Lower Court, Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Law or Action Upheld
  • Case Number
    No. 16-1459 and 16-1694
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh District affirmed the decision of an Illinois District Court, upholding the convictions of Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) for breaking into a mink farm, releasing the minks and causing property damage. The Defendants challenged their convictions, arguing that the AETA was overbroad, vague, and violated their substantive due process rights. The Court reasoned that the plain language of the statute as well as its legislative history made clear that the AETA does not criminalize speech or conduct that causes damage only to intangible profits and, in any event, expressly excludes activities covered by the First Amendment and was therefore not overbroad.  As to vagueness, the Court said that the Defendants conduct was exactly the type of harm AETA was intended to protect against and therefore the statute, as applied, was not void for vagueness. Finally, the Court said that the labeling of animal activists as ‘terrorists’ was not a sufficient restraint on liberty for the court to find their substantive due process rights were violated because its purpose was merely to ensure that those convicted under the AETNA had their  backgrounds and facts of their crime comprehensively reviewed before being assigned an appropriate facility.


Defendants, Kevin Johnson and Tyler Lang, were convicted in district court under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) after releasing around 2,000 minks from a mink farm. During the incident they broke the cages to free the minks, destroyed portions of fencing, and spray-painted “Liberation is Love” on a barn, causing almost $200,000 in damage. They then traveled to a fox farm, planning to release the foxes and damage the farm in a similar manner, but were arrested en route. They were charged with possession of burglary tools and each sentenced to 30 months imprisonment. The state also brought charges under the AETA for traveling in interstate commerce with the intention of damaging an animal enterprise. The Defendants filed a motion to dismiss alleging (1) AETA is overly broad, (2) unconstitutionally vague, and (3) their convictions violated their due process rights. The district court denied the motion to dismiss and this appeal followed.

Decision Overview

The Court upheld the Act as constitutional.

Appellants first contended that the AETA is substantially overbroad because it criminalizes any advocacy that potentially causes a loss of profits to an animal enterprise which has the effect of chilling the speech of animal right activists. Specifically, they said, that the statute prohibits advocacy that merely results in intangible loss to profits. The Court noted that in order to succeed in an overbreadth challenge the applicants must prove that the statute is substantially overbroad in the majority of cases in which it is applied. This is to balance the government interest in maintaining the rule of law with the public’s right to freedom of speech and expression. The Court found that the plain language of the statute did not support an interpretation of the statute that extended to cover intangible harm. The Court also relied on the limiting provision in the statute that restricted the enforcement of the statute to activities not covered by the First Amendment.

Next, the Court looked at the appellants argument that the statute was void for vagueness. Specifically, the appellants alleged the statute violates vagueness principles by inviting “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” They focused on the definition of animal enterprise in the statute, alleging it was so broad as to include any store or restaurant that sells any type of animal product. As this claim for vagueness did not involve first amendment concerns, the Court noted the statue could not be attacked facially and the appellants must prove the statute was vague, as applied to their convictions. The Court found there was no arbitrary enforcement in this case as the conduct was exactly the type of harm AETA was intended to protect against and therefore the statute, as applied, was not void for vagueness. The Court also noted, assuming the appellants could have brought a facial claim, that it would have still found against them, as the Court found nothing in the Act to make it not discernible or unspecific. Interestingly, the Court drew a distinction where the government did not bring charges under the AETA against four teenagers who broke into a shed and killed over 900 chickens with weapons; because they had no intent to harm an animal enterprise, AETA could not be applied to them.

Finally, appellants argued that AETA was unconstitutional facially by labeling animal activists as terrorists for merely causing economic damage to property and therefore, when applied, violated substantive due process, . The Court found the only effect of the labeling “terrorist” was that the government will assign a counter-terrorism employee to review the case of someone convicted under the Act, and they then make a recommendation as to where the individual will be incarcerated. This was not a sufficient restraint on liberty for the Court to find their substantive due process rights were violated.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

This case contracts expression by again upholding the constitutionality of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. This Act was previously addressed by the First Circuit in the case Blum v. Holder, where the suit was dismissed for a lack of standing. The present case was the first to consider the merits of the constitutionality of the Act. The Center for Constitutional Rights and other organizations have spoken out against the this Act. They argue that it has the potential to criminalize protected speech through vague and broad language and that it labels animal activists as dangerous “terrorists” imposing fines and jail sentences for only economic damage.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., U.S.C. 43, Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act
  • U.S., United States v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285 (2008)
  • U.S., United States v. Rodgers, 755 F.2d 533 (7th Cir. 1985)
  • U.S., Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601 (1973)
  • U.S., Blum v. Holder, 744 F.3d 790 (1st Cir. 2014)
  • U.S., CISPES v. F.B.I., 770 F.2d 468 (5th Cir. 1985)
  • U.S., United States v. Buddenberg, No. CR-09-00263 RMW, 2010 WL 2735547 (N.D. Cal. July 12, 2010)
  • U.S., United States v. Morris, 821 F.3d 877 (7th Cir. 2016)
  • U.S., Maynard v. Cartwright, 486 US. 356 (1988)
  • U.S., United States v. Coscia, 866 F.3d 782 (7th Cir. 2017)

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

As a decision of the Court of Appeals, this decision binds all lower courts in the Seventh Circuit.

Official Case Documents

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