Utah's "Commercial Terrorism" Statute Violates Peaceful Protesters Rights, Court Rules

Affiliate: ACLU of Utah
October 10, 2001 12:00 am

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SALT LAKE CITY–Citing the First Amendment right to stage peaceful protests on public sidewalks, U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins today declared Utah’s “commercial terrorism” statute unconstitutional and permanently blocked the law from taking effect.

Protesters (some of them dressed as animals) regularly pass out leaflets and picket in front of zoos, stores that sell fur and other enterprises that they believe exploit animals.

The ruling resulted from a lawsuit filed last spring by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah on behalf of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, whose members feared that under the statute, the lawful demonstrations they regularly conduct in front of Utah businesses would be classified as criminal activity.

“As the court today realized, this law was not aimed at so-called terrorists but at ordinary citizens who, because of their values about the welfare of animals, engage in peaceful protests and demonstrations against businesses that profit from the sale of animal products.” Janelle Eurick, an ACLU of Utah staff attorney.

Passed during the 2001 legislative session, House Bill 322 “Domestic Terrorism of Commercial Enterprises” created a new crime called “commercial terrorism,” which applied to any person or business and included a substantial amount of constitutionally protected expression.

Under the law, an individual is guilty of commercial terrorism if “he enters … a building of any business with the intent to interfere with the employees, customers, personnel, or operation of a business.” The definition of “enter” included “the intrusion of any physical object, sound wave, light ray, electronic signal or other means of intrusion under the control of the actor.”

Eurick called the definition an absurd notion that has no place in a democratic society. “How can there be free expression that doesn’t involve light rays or sound waves? The statute made it a crime for demonstrators to lawfully assemble on a public sidewalk if their verbal or written messages that are intended to dissuade people from patronizing the business ‘enter’ the premises.”

In its brief, the ACLU of Utah argued that the law did not ensure that speakers had a reasonable alternative channel of communication. To the contrary, the restrictions required demonstrators to be out of sight and earshot of a business they intended to protest against, thus preventing them from reaching their intended audience.

Eurick described the court’s decision as a victory for the First Amendment. “Today’s ruling recognizes that it is a fundamental right of all individuals to freely communicate their ideas and messages concerning the practices of retail establishments from the public sidewalks in front of those businesses. This freedom is the essence of the right to free expression and the court rightly concluded that it should not be considered a crime.”

Additional information about the case is available at http://www.acluutah.org.

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