Activist labeled brains of animal rights violence
By Robert P. King
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
February 22, 2006
WEST PALM BEACH — The Web site of the magazine Bite Back leaves little mystery about the fate that could await people and companies that profit from mistreating animals.
Somebody might slash their tires, or spray-paint slogans such as "Puppy Killer" on their homes or cars. Or smash their computers. Or glue their door locks shut. Or run up $1,000 charges on their credit cards. Or spread rumors that they are convicted rapists. Or threaten the safety of their employees' families.
"We are sick and tired of having to track down murdering scum like you," reads one online message, directed at the head of animal testing for a British multinational pharmaceutical company.
Another warns: "You never know what could happen!!! Ask Brian Cass!" (Assailants beat the British animal-testing executive with baseball bats five years ago.)
The dozens of messages, attributed to anonymous animal rights activists from around the world, are a staple of the magazine's Web site, www.directaction.info. And now they're bringing international scrutiny to Nicolas Atwood, a longtime activist in West Palm Beach whose company operates both the print and online publications.
A story in London's Sunday Times this week described Atwood as the "mastermind behind an animal rights campaign inciting violent attacks against Oxford University academics."
But Atwood said Tuesday that he's merely a volunteer, reporting on the work of people who are "risking their freedom to help animals."
"The media, especially in England, really needs to believe that there's a leader or a mastermind behind the radical animal rights movement, and that's not true," said Atwood, president of the company Bite Back Inc. "I'm not a mastermind of anything."
The movement is mainly nonviolent, said Atwood, who dismissed some of the more extreme messages as "a lot of hot air." But he left it to individual activists to decide how far to go in freeing animals from labs or deterring companies from harmful research.
"I hope our movement doesn't cross that line into actually killing somebody," Atwood said. But as for the 2001 attack on Cass, managing director of the British animal-testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences, "I just don't shed any tears if he had a bump on his head."
Atwood, 33, is a former communications coordinator for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. He pleaded guilty in 1999 to a charge of criminal mischief in Broward County, although the judge withheld a conviction, according to state law-enforcement records.
Among the actions championed in the Bite Back Web site's anonymous messages is a December 2004 burglary in the Tequesta office of Seaboard Securities, a firm that the activists say had done business with Huntingdon. Activists accuse Huntingdon of subjecting monkeys, beagles and other creatures to painful, lethal experiments.
Other postings take credit for attacks on the parcel-delivery company UPS, also accused of doing business with Huntingdon. (On the other hand, Atwood's company uses a UPS Store in downtown West Palm Beach as its mailing address.)
Many of the messages supposedly come from the Animal Liberation Front, a loosely organized movement that the FBI has labeled one of the nation's most serious domestic terror threats. But FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said the online messages are legal under the Constitution.
"Atwood is acting like a media entity, and it's a matter of free speech, First Amendment rights," she said. "There's no criminal activity reaching back to him."
But Patti Strand, a vocal critic of the animal rights movement, said activists are exploiting the First Amendment to carry out "a campaign of broad intimidation." And, she added: "Intimidation is part of terrorism."
Strand noted that the anonymous messages often name specific pharmaceutical executives and others who supposedly deserve abuse, and in some cases advocate going after their families, too.
"These Web sites put up derogatory claims about people in the most horrible and most vilifying terms possible, and then bad things begin to happen to people," said Strand, national director of the National Animal Interest Alliance, which says its members include research scientists, veterinarians and pet owners. "Signs will be put in front of your house. Your wife, your children will get phone calls. Your kids will get letters passed to them on their playground at school."
In general, though, the First Amendment protects "even hateful, repugnant speech," unless it amounts to threats or an immediate incitement to law-breaking, said David Hudson, a research attorney at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But in the age of the Internet, he said, it might be an open question what words such as "immediate" mean. And courts have shown signs of reexamining such questions.
In a 2002 decision, federal appellate judges in California upheld a jury verdict against anti-abortion groups that had put "wanted" posters of doctors on the Web, along with their names and addresses. In an ongoing trial in New Jersey, six animal-rights activists are facing domestic terrorism charges for operating a Web site that prosecutors say encouraged violence against Huntingdon and its employees, many of whose names and addresses were on the site.
Unlike the New Jersey group, Atwood said, his doesn't publish home addresses. Still, he acknowledged that the legal tide could be turning against his company, especially in an era marked by post-Sept. 11 fears of terrorism.
"I would be lying if I said there wasn't some fear," Atwood said. "I'm not willing to let the government frighten me into being quiet."
|These are some of the many statements from anonymous activists published on the Web site of the West Palm Beach-based animal rights magazine Bite Back.
• Feb. 14, about a pharmaceuticals executive in Great Britain: "We are sick and tired of having to track down murdering scum like you Alan . . . your time is up. The mobilization of destruction against you and your family begins here."
• Feb. 1, regarding the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline: "Recently we visited the home of . . . an executive at GSK in North Carolina. We found out lots of good info. With his credit card, a $1,000 donation to a charity of our choice was made."
• Jan. 28, on a "visit" to a GSK executive's home in Great Britain: "We hope this thickheaded (expletive) understands the intention of these warnings and quits his sick and amoral job or we'll be back once again, and this time, it won't just be wet paint that we leave on his doorstep."
• Jan. 31, Great Britain: "Letters have been anonymously mailed out to the neighbours of three pharmaceutical company directors incorrectly claiming that they are convicted rapists. . . . The letters which claim to be from a member of the police force also name the director's family members and claim that they are aware of the situation."
• Dec. 30, 2004: " Last night we broke into the offices of Seaboard Securities . . . in Tequesta, Florida. . . . We now know where you live; we will not hesitate to take this fight to your doorstep."