State animal terrorism laws have been enacted to protect agricultural research and production using animals. The laws prohibit acts that obstruct, impede, or disrupt agricultural operations, research, or experimentation conducted at an animal facility. A person who violates a state animal terrorism law may be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, face a stiff fine and prison term, and may be required to pay restitution. Opponents of such laws argue that they may violate state and federal constitutional rights.
Approximately 28 states have enacted animal enterprise interference laws to protect animal facilities from animal welfare activists. Legislators, noting that the use of animals is vital to the economy, have sought to stem the rising number of illegal acts targeted at such facilities. The stated goal is to protect the public safety and the public interest in agricultural research and production. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) is the federal animal terrorism law that was passed in 2006.
In order to protect animal facilities’ economic interest in animals, the animal terrorism laws typically forbid a person from entering an animal facility with the intent to commit an act that involves injury or loss of life to people and/or animals, criminal trespass, and property damage if the perpetrator’s intent is to obstruct, impede, or disrupt operations, agricultural research, or experimentation. For example, it would be a violation to enter a factory farm without permission to videotape goats being electrocuted or to free lab rats from their cages. It is also prohibited to deter or prevent any person from participating in a lawful activity that involves the use of animals. Threatening slaughterhouse workers with a shovel or just blocking their entry into the facility to prevent the slaughter of horses would be illegal under such a law.
A person who violates a state animal terrorism statute may be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the act and amount of damages involved. A conviction may result in a stiff fine and a lengthy prison sentence. In South Carolina, a misdemeanor act of animal terrorism can result in a fine as high as $10,000 and a prison sentence as long as three years. In Pennsylvania, a person committing a felony act of animal terrorism faces a hefty fine of $100,000 and a prison sentence as long as 40 years. In a minority of jurisdictions, a crime involving an animal enterprise may be subject to a penalty enhancement. A perpetrator may also be ordered to pay restitution to the victim for damages.
Both the state animal terrorism and federal AETA laws have been criticized for violating activists' state and federal constitutional rights. Some opponents complain that the laws have a chilling effect on free speech and may violate equal protection rights. Animal rights activists fear these "Ag-gag" laws will continue to multiply and become even more severe, as more and more states seek to prevent whistle-blowers from exposing abuses in agribusiness. In fact, a Minnesota bill introduced in April 2011 seeks to make it a felony to disrupt operations at factory farms. The proposed legislation would make it a gross misdemeanor to document an “image or sound” of animal suffering at an animal facility, punishing both videographers and distributors of such videos. Iowa and Florida have also considered such amendments.