Terrorism or free speech?

A Huntington, California man, an animal-rights activist, is to be tried with six others for exhorting action against N.J. company that does animal testing

May 11, 2005

A Huntington animal-rights activist is one of seven people from around the country scheduled to go on trial next month in federal court in Trenton for operating a Web site that encouraged the terrorizing of both a New Jersey company, Huntingdon Life Sciences, and businesses associated with it, as well as their employees.

Huntingdon specializes in animal testing for drug and cosmetic firms. It denies claims that it mistreats animals.

Attorneys for the Huntington man, Andrew Stepanian, 25, and the other defendants say the government is violating their clients' First Amendment rights to free speech. They have pleaded not guilty after their arrests by FBI agents in May 2004.

Both sides agree the law doesn't clearly define the difference between permissible free speech on the Internet and terrorism.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna, however, said in court papers that the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty Web site isn't protected by the First Amendment because its stated purpose is to encourage others to "operate outside the confines of the legal system." It described the "top 20 terror tactics," against Huntingdon, including physical assaults, firebombings, vandalism and threatening to kill children of company officials.

"We think these people are terrorists," Michael Caulfield, Huntingdon's general manager, said in a recent telephone interview. "If their claims about [mistreatment of animals] are slightly true, we would have been closed down ... long ago."

But lawyers for Stepanian, who served 3 months in jail in 2000 for throwing a brick at the window of a Huntington fur store, and the other defendants said the Web site merely reports on the activities of those who want to close down Huntingdon.

The lawyer for the Web site, Andrew Ebla of Philadelphia, said arresting people for operating a Web site is the beginning of "a slippery slope" that would lead to censorship of many forms of speech in the country.

Stepanian and the other defendants were all charged with violating a little-known federal law aimed at terrorism against animal-testing enterprises.

Prosecutors say Stepanian and his co-defendants encouraged vandalism in July 2002 at the Meadowbrook Golf Club in Jericho, which damaged four greens and holes. One of the players in a charity tournament scheduled there was an executive of a company that insured Huntingdon. The Web site also backed the spray-painting in September 2002 of the same executive's Plandome home, prosecutors said. The words "murder" and "leave town" were painted on the house.

The defendants face up to 3 years in prison on the charges of terrorism against an animal laboratory.