State Senate votes to raise research vandalism penalties

K.C. Howard

State senators unanimously passed a homeland security bill Thursday that would increase the penalties for organizations taking credit for terrorist activity and vandalism of research.

University officials praised the legislation, which will hold organizations fiscally and punitively responsible for destroying research animals or crops.

“I think the incident that occurred with respect to arson on the microbial plant and genomics building was a pretty serious incident where people’s lives were at risk because of the methods used to ignite these fires,” said Robert Elde, College of Biological Sciences dean. Elde testified on behalf of the bill this session.

Sen. Dave Kleis, R-St. Cloud, said he was inspired to write the bill after the Animal Liberation Front – an activist group that has claimed responsibility for millions of dollars in damage nationwide – destroyed University lab research in 1999. The vandalism delayed cancer cell research.

“The purpose behind terrorism is obviously to build sympathy or notoriety for a cause, which is why groups are so eager to take credit,” Kleis said. “If these groups understand that there will be severe consequences simply for claiming responsibility, perhaps they’ll think twice about committing such crimes.”

The Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for assaults on a St. Paul greenhouse in 2000 and for the arson of a trailer and two pieces of a machinery near the microbial and plant genomics building in January.

“In those situations there was no loss of life, but there very easily could have been,” Kleis said.

Law enforcement officials have a tough time targeting these organizations, which claim responsibility through their Web sites or spokespeople, he said.

Both groups say there is no direct communication between their press offices and the perpetrators. According to an ALF direct action report for 2001 states, “The only real connection is one of a shared philosophy, that illegal direct action is sometimes necessary.”

Kleis’ bill, which awaits the governor’s approval, will hold the organizations’ tangible members responsible for three times the market value of the research destroyed.

No individual can be charged until the perpetrator has been caught, charged and sentenced. But after that, organization members can be sentenced to half the perpetrator’s punishment.

Several senators had concerns that the legislation violates First Amendment rights but eventually consented because they said the bill’s point is moot.

“I don’t think it’s going to change things,” said Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Brooklyn Center, “and why can’t people say things whether they’re true or not?”

If an organization claims responsibility for an act it didn’t commit, University law professor Daniel Farber said the bill would not violate free speech rights, because the false claim obstructs justice.

“The harder case is if it’s true because there is public interest in finding out who is responsible for the crime and there is the argument that the information should be used as evidence in prosecution of the crime,” Farber said.