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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- So the Democrats are back in power on Capitol Hill, but with Congress reconvening in its lame-duck session, it will be interesting to see which below-the-radar bills are slipped in for consideration.

These are quite often legislative proposals, accompanied by an air of quiet desperation, that wouldn't draw successful support in regular sessions of the House and Senate, but which might stand a chance of consideration and passage by disgruntled and deadline-ridden losers who leave office in January -- and who are eager to take care of their friends, contributors and various special interests to whom they may be indebted.

One such proposal is the murkily named "Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act." We'll get back to this potentially controversial bill shortly.

But first, a brief public service announcement explaining what in heck a "lame duck" is: This is an elected official who serves after the time when someone has been elected to take his or her place, but before the new official is actually sworn into office. All those congressional Republicans who -- as President George W. Bush so colorfully puts it -- "took a thumpin'" on Election Day (that is, got beat) are now lame ducks. The term was first used in England back in the 1700s by members of the London Stock Exchange to describe traders or investors who suffered a series of bad investments and thus lost financial power, but were still able to keep struggling.

One can easily see the potential mischief that can be made by people used to holding power, but soon to lose it. Some congressional lame ducks go quietly into the legislative night, little to be heard from again. Others wreak havoc. The GOP majority, for instance, with a willing GOP president, theoretically could intensify our presence in Iraq, or dismantle Social Security, or defund vital scientific research, or pass dozens of other what-the-heck, we-might-as-well bills.

More likely -- given Dubya's overtures toward cooperating with new majority Democrats -- the lame ducks in the 109th session of Congress will turn attention to the nine unresolved appropriations bills for fiscal 2007, and if they can't push them through, pass "continuing resolutions" to keep funding federal government operations until the new members sort it all out.

Back to the proposed Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act -- S. 1926 in the Senate, and H.R. 4239 in the House. No, this does not mean preventing renegade dolphins -- trained by the U.S. Navy to place underwater magnetic bombs on enemy ship hulls -- from turning on our own destroyers and aircraft carriers. Nor does the bill seek to keep imaginative jihadists from strapping explosives on cows and blowing up barns to cripple our dairy industry.

Instead, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is aimed at, well, people who love animals.

The stated intent is to protect science and medical researchers and the firm or organization they work for from harm or injury or harassment. Instead, say critics of the legislation, it would weaken free speech and silence dissent.

Lawyer Jeff Kerr, chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union's policy committee in Virginia and general counsel to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says the bills "seek to prevent discourse and to freeze free speech like an Arctic blast." He notes that in an age when the FBI has already been caught "infiltrating, surveilling, and even prosecuting purely peaceful anti-war, animal rights and environmental protection charities," activists or demonstrators under this broadly worded legislation could be arrested even if their conduct causes no damage or injury of any kind.

This legislation, says Kemp, is for the benefit of outfits that still use animals for "scientific" research, and "to shield them from public opinion and discussion, from peaceful and heretofore lawful pickets, is an attack on every American's right of protest."

Backers of the bills take an entirely different view.

The Senate version of this proposal was introduced by Sen. James Inhofe, a very, very conservative Republican from Oklahoma, and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Three weeks ago -- just before the election recess -- he convened his panel for a hearing on what he calls "eco-terrorism" and described greatly broadened penalties "for intentional disruption or damage, and for intentionally causing bodily harm or placing a person in reasonable fear of death or bodily harm."

Pretty broad, huh? The words "reasonable fear" put all the power with the person complaining about demonstrators or critics, no matter how peaceful their intent. Inhofe put out a press release that claims the bill "broadens the definition of animal enterprise to include a commercial enterprise that uses or sells animals or animal products for profit or otherwise including animal shelters, breeders, pet stores, and furriers."

The Senate bill defines "economic disruption" as "losses or increased costs resulting from threats, acts of violence, property damage, trespass, harassment, or intimidation taken against a person or entity on account of their relationship with an animal enterprise."

Wow. More exceedingly broad language, the welcome refuge of despots.

Watch out, all you celebrities who picket stores selling fur coats. Watch out, Willie Nelson and Bo Derek, for your announced support of the proposed legislation preventing the slaughter of horses in America for human consumption abroad. Watch out, all you college kids who demonstrate against Pennsylvania puppy mills. Watch out, me -- for writing this column.

When the targets of any protest whatsoever against their animal-damaging enterprise -- no matter how innocent, feeble or unproductive -- discover they can claim an increased cost of doing business will shut down the protesters, they will easily and routinely gin up additional outlays for "doing business."

Free-speech attorney Kerr points out this misguided legislation could easily lead to jail time for:

And the charges wouldn't be jaywalking or disturbing the peace. The "offender" would be charged with terrorism. Boycott a pet store, find yourself in Guantanamo Bay. Talk about clamping down on robust social debate. This is ludicrous.

The House version, presented by Wisconsin Republican congressman Thomas Petri, is not quite as dangerously broad, but similar. The Senate bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The House bill has been referred to the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

Much of this congressional over-reaction was initially triggered by a PETA campaign against a British firm called Huntington Life Sciences notorious for its animal experimentation on behalf of large pharmaceutical companies, makers of pesticides and household cleaners, and food-additive producers.

PETA activists came up with film showing staffers shaking and punching beagles, laughing and shouting at the dogs and even simulating sex with some of the animals. Footage shot in the United States appeared to show technicians dissecting a live baboon. The pet-loving British raised hell, and Huntington Life Sciences had its operating license lifted by the British Home Office for six months. Its stock -- much of which was held by the Labour Party's retirement fund -- dropped precipitously.

PETA withdrew its campaign in the face of threatened legal action by Huntington, but was replaced at the turn of millennium by SHAC or Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty -- an outfit that makes the much-criticized PETA look like the Boy Scouts. SHAC's motto is "Words Mean Nothing -- Action Is Everything."

SHAC has targeted even companies providing services for Huntington, including Xerox and UPS, and even managed to offend the prestigious and activist Southern Poverty Law Center, which helped shut down the Ku Klux Klan -- and which has described SHAC's methods as "frankly terroristic tactics similar to those of anti-abortion extremists."

But such violent activities already fall under much state and federal American law that protects corporations and individuals alike from attack without obliterating legal protest and

free speech. As lawyer Kerr notes, if the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act passes both chambers of Congress and is signed by President Bush, you should be prepared to answer the question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of a free-speech protection organization?"

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 14 2006