Animal-rights activists went to the home of a Chiron employee one night last year to send a message. They pounded on her front door, rang her doorbell and shouted, "Open the door," followed by an epithet. Another night, they shouted through bullhorns and then bragged about it on the Internet. Someone also exploded two pipe bombs in her workplace.
Her crime? She was a paralegal for the Chiron Corp. in Emeryville, Calif., which engages in animal research to develop vaccines and other lifesaving products. It was her bad luck that Chiron had contracted with the animal-research firm Huntingdon Life Sciences -- and worse luck that animal-rights activists had formed a group committed to putting Huntingdon out of business, a group that was willing to intimidate any individual toward that end.
Last week, the feds indicted seven members of the group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty -- including three Pinole, Calif., residents -- for stalking, harassing and intimidating employees at Huntingdon, Chiron and other concerns. The courts will decide if these individuals are guilty as charged. A SHAC spokesperson told the San Francisco Chronicle the charges are "completely unfounded" and then said this is "a classic First Amendment case."
But does SHAC understand the First Amendment is not a license to intimidate?
The group started in England, where Huntingdon had its headquarters, and began what authorities call "tertiary targeting." As Frankie Trull of the Foundation for Biomedical Research explained, harassing medical researchers doesn't work because they won't quit the work they love. "But if you are a company that provides financial or banking services, and you have to empty your building two days in a row for bomb threats, you are not going to put your employees in jeopardy for one customer," said Trull.
SHAC determined that if activists targeted banks, insurers and auditors, they could isolate Huntingdon from the services it needed to stay in business. The group used vandalism and intimidation against banks until Huntingdon could no longer hold a bank account. Aware of the consequences to medical research if Huntingdon failed, the British government took the unheard-of step of giving Huntingdon a Bank of England account.
The group also targeted shareholders and service providers. Last year, a two-week-long harassment campaign prompted the auditing firm Deloitte & Touche to drop Huntingdon. In fact, SHAC had started to name a "target of the week."