The world is a complex mix of competing views. Politicians and pressure groups have fought long and hard to find a balance between the desire for free speech, and the need to limit the voices of extremism and irresponsibility within our communities. Few would condemn the arrest of someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded, confined space; however most respect our right to peaceful protest.
Incitement to violence, harassment or intimidation against those of different creeds, lifestyles or beliefs should not be regarded as acceptable in a modern liberal democracy. The challenge comes in deciding what should be regarded as incitement, and what should not. I believe that a tiny minority of animal rights extremists have crossed the lines of acceptability and to this end I provide two examples – one recent, and one from some years back.
Case 1: Incitement to murder
Jerry Vlasak is an influential player within the extreme end of the animal liberation movement. As press officer of the North American Animal Liberation Press Office he has become one of the mouthpieces of the Animal Liberation Front and the Animal Rights Militia. His position as a role model has not appeared to bring upon any sense of responsibility for his words.
I think there is a use for violence in our movement. And I think it can be an effective strategy. Not only is it morally acceptable, I think that there are places where it could be used quite effectively from a pragmatic standpoint.
For instance, if vivisectors were routinely being killed, I think it would give other vivisectors pause in what they were doing in their work — and if these vivisectors were being targeted for assassination … — and I wouldn’t pick some guy way down the totem pole, but if there were prominent vivisectors being assassinated, I think that there would be a trickle-down effect [...]
And I don’t think you’d have to kill — assassinate — too many vivisectors before you would see a marked decrease in the amount of vivisection going on. (Source)
Now I have little doubt that Vlasak does not intend to murder anyone himself. However it would take only one young, idealistic activist trying to build his reputation and strike a blow for animal liberation to follow Vlasak’s twisted logic into the unthinkable.
Vlasak is not the only person to call for violence against animal researchers (and their families). If the unthinkable was to happen, there would be many animal rights extremists whose words will have played a part in its creation. Nonetheless, surely, there is a moral line in the sand which few if any would be willing to cross, after all the animal rights movement is fundamentally in the business of saving lives (albeit not human ones)? Surely….?
May 31st, 2009, a doctor is shot dead at a church service. It is not the first time he has been shot for his beliefs and line of work, individuals have already called for the death of doctor’s in the same line of work.
The above is not the actions of animal rights activists, but that of anti-abortion extremists. In 2009 Scott Roeder crossed the lines of acceptability and morality and murdered Doctor George Tiller. Such actions were roundly deplored, but little time is spent considering the impact of those that had called for Tiller’s death, and the death of other abortionists. Sadly, many similarities can be found between the tactics of the animal rights extremist movement, and those of the anti-abortion extremists.
Case 2: Naming the targets
The second situation further strains the relationship between freedom of speech and freedom from harassment. What if a known extremist movement does not directly call for the death of its enemies, but instead provides the information necessary to target them. They may not have put the gun in anybody’s hand, but they are certainly showing them where to point it.
Negotiation is Over, a fringe animal rights extremist group has provided such information on a number of occasions. Providing names and contact information for a variety of researchers. NIO’s words are reminiscent of our earlier discussion.
Every time a vivisector’s car or home — and, eventually, the abuser him/herself — blows up, flames of liberation light up the sky [...]
The only effective approaches to veteran abusers appear to be through incendiaries, intimidation, and violence.
Bear such words in mind when you consider that on January 8th 2012 NIO decided to publish floor plans for research facilities at the University of Florida. No threats were published alongside it, but then with a website full of calls to harass and intimidate researchers, they hardly needed to put them in the same post.
Is free speech a sufficient barrier to hide behind when distributing such potentially risky materials. When does one person’s freedom of speech justify infringing on another’s right to live free from harassment?
Before I decided to write this post I received an email from a colleague of a researcher who was under threat. One paragraph particularly stuck with me:
I actually cannot believe a court of law would allow documents of this nature containing names of people who work at an institution to be given to a group of people sworn to kill, torture and terrify them. Their site is already filled with people licking their lips about harassing families and even people discussing murder. I have counted a fair number of people who made implications of going to schools where their kids studies. These clearly are a lot of idle threats but it takes just one person to turn an idle threat into a tragedy.
Just one person.
The comments made by Vlasak and others, the documents and finger pointing of groups like Negotiation is Over, are permitted under the guise of free speech. The effect is a generation of researchers who do not dare to speak up for what they do lest they become the next target. Even though many researchers are not aware of characters like Vlasak, or the particulars of the threats made to fellow colleagues in science, these extremists contribute to a general awareness of a dangerous animal rights movement whom many scientists would prefer not to cross. Furthermore, fear may cause some aspiring scientists to choose different career paths at a time when science plays such a crucial role in the economic prosperity and health of a nation.
The Freedom of Speech Paradox is thus – when people misuse this right, as provided by the First Amendment, in order to intimidate others away from being able to use their same right to defend and justify their work.