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How bombings in Santa Cruz saved researcher protection bill

In late July, a bill to protect academic researchers looked like it might be on the ropes. AB 2296 by Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, was stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Researcher Protection Act of 2008 had been stripped down to intent language, and looked like it might only pass in a watered down form.

Then on August 2, two University of California at Santa Cruz scientists were targeted in firebomb attacks. Both targets conduct health-related research on animals. One bomb forced the researcher to flee out of a second story window with his wife and two children.
Rather than accepting a weaker bill, Mullin said, on August 4 he amended the bill to include criminal penalties. After a detour through Public Safety Committees in both houses, AB 2296 passed by off the Senate floor 29-0 on August 22. It flew out of the Assembly 78-0 a week later. As passed, the bill would make it a crime to publish information about where academic researchers and their families work and live with the intent to incite a crime or a threat of violence.

Both Mullin and some of those who had issues with the bill agreed that the Santa Cruz bombings had a huge effect.

“There is absolutely no doubt that put an exclamation point on the need for greater protection,” Mullin said.

“I thought, ‘Who are these people?’” said Virginia Handley, co-founder of San Francisco-based Animal Switchboard, which opposed the bill. “They did it with the worst possible timing. The bill was basically dead.”

The Humane Society of the United States, Animal Switchboard have been monitoring the bill and opposing some of its provisions, though the Humane Society has been neutral since May. These organizations have often used the Freedom of Information Act and other free speech laws to find out who was doing different kinds of animal research. This information, Handley said, was then publicized in editorials, web pages and newspaper articles used to exert political pressure and help recruit people to the animal welfare cause.

“Some of the language did make us a bit uncomfortable,” said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society. “We did feel it could have an impact on lawful and legitimate advocacy.”

Both Markarian and Handley said their groups deplore violence and the personal targeting of scientists and their families. Handley brought up similar issues that have faced both the anti-abortion movement and the environmental movement. The former has had to deal with extremists who shot doctors and bombed clinics, while environmentalists have been hurt by bombings and sabotage by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF).

“We have all these people trying to deal with the issue in a legal way, then we have to deal with some guy shoving a garden hose in somebody’s mail slot,” Handley said. She added, “It doesn’t it help the animals much. It may scare a few researchers off, but there’s plenty more behind them.”

Handley said Mullin was usually a strong supporter of animal welfare bills. But Mullin said this issue was important to his constituents. His district contains more than 60 biotech companies, led by Genentech, as well as major research universities nearby, including Santa Cruz and Stanford.

 Mullin’s staff also pointed out the inadequacy of the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Congress passed that law in 2006, but it has resulted in only two convictions–largely because it depends on federal prosecutions. Local District Attorneys have not had a similar state statute they could use to impose harsher sentences on these crimes.  

AB 2296 followed a winding path on its way to the governor’s desk. The original version was introduced in February. In April, civil penalties were added as it moved into the Assembly Judiciary Committee. A committee analysis cited the “increasing number of reports of frightening assaults on academics engage in animal research and testing.” It easily cleared the Assembly in a May floor vote.

But it ran into problems when it hit the Senate Judiciary Committee in June. The committee analysis noted that the legislature has extended similar protections to abortion providers (SB 1590 by Senator Joe Dunn, 2004, and AB 2251 by Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, 2006) and elected officials (AB 1595, Evans, 2005). The need for protections for elected officials may have gotten its own exclamation mark last week with the murder of 22 year-old Fairfield City Councilman Matt Garcia by an unknown gunman.

The Judiciary Committee analysis called the comparison between reproductive workers and academic researchers “tenuous.” It went on to say “The Legislature has only extended privacy protections to two groups based on their unique circumstances, and this bill would unwrap that set of protections far beyond what the Legislature initially intended.”

Hoping to move the bill through and perhaps set up for stronger protections later on, Mullin removed the portions of the bill that imposed actual penalties.

“They were a little concerned in that committee that the level of threat to academic researchers was not the same degree as reproductive rights workers or elected officials,” Mullin said.

Then the Santa Cruz bombings happened. Lurid photos of a burned up family car and a charred home entryway appeared in several newspapers. Numerous editorials, including some out of the animal welfare community, condemned the attacks. Several days before the attacks, unsigned pamphlets were found in a café citing both targets and 11 other researchers, warning “Animal abusers everywhere beware.”

Though the bill is mainly intended to protect those working on animals, Mullin broadened it to all academic researchers, partly to remove some of the last objections to the bill. Mullin said he hoped the bill would be part of his legacy when he terms out of the Assembly in November. Just as anti-abortion violence moved from clinics to doctors’ homes as workplace security increased, Mullin said, something similar has been happening at animal research facilities.

“They have become pretty well fortified,” Mullin said. “The homes have become the soft target.”

Markarian said the timing of the bombings worked so well in favor of AB 2296 that some have speculated it was done by someone outside the animal welfare movement who wanted to draw attention to the more extreme side of animal rights activism. He brought up the example of Mary Sapone, AKA Mary Lou McFate. The 62 year-old has been in the news for infiltrating gun control groups on behalf of the National Rifle Association. In the 1980s, she did the same to the animal rights movement on behalf of a medical supply company.

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