Law penalizes claims of responsibility for destructive acts

Libby George

Violent or destructive actions by activist or terrorist groups are typically followed by claims of responsibility by the groups’ representatives.

But under a law the Legislature passed last session, claims of responsibility could be used to imprison those who speak on behalf of the groups.

The law came after the clandestine Earth Liberation Front set fire to two research buildings and destroyed a trailer on the St. Paul campus in January 2002, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

One part of the law took effect July 1 and made those who destroy biological research liable for up to three times the amount of the damage they caused.

The Colorado General Assembly considered a similar measure after two Earth Liberation Front incidents in that state caused millions of dollars in property damage.

The more controversial part of the Minnesota law, which took effect Aug. 1, made it a gross misdemeanor for people to take responsibility for crimes for which they have not been convicted.

This law, imposing punishment for a spokesman’s statement rather than a group’s violent or destructive act, has raised free speech concerns.

Chuck Samuelson, Minnesota Civil Liberties Union executive director, said his organization has protected group representatives who have been threatened with legal action because of the acts committed by others.

“Just because you talk about it and the goals of the organization doesn’t make you responsible,” he said.

Samuelson compared the law to blaming the spokesman of a group opposed to abortion for the bombing of an abortion clinic by a radical activist.

“These groups have a right to advocate social change and to advocate change in policy,” he said.

Samuelson added that some of those in the Legislature appear to see censorship as their “divine right,” but they still should not be allowed to circumvent the law by restricting speech.

“There’s nothing illegal with that,” he said. “It’s tasteless maybe. It’s offensive perhaps. But that’s free speech.”

College of Biological Sciences Dean Robert Elde said the law might deter groups such as Earth Liberation Front from destroying more research.

“There was the serious threat of loss of life,” he said. “It’s pretty serious stuff in my view.”

The fire destroyed part of the construction site for the college’s Microbial and Plant Genomics Building. An Earth Liberation Front communique said the group opposes research on genetically modified plants.

In February 2000, Earth Liberation Front members allegedly caused approximately $1,000 in damage to a St. Paul campus greenhouse and destroyed more than 800 transgenic research plants.

Elde said he takes the First Amendment seriously, but after the Earth Liberation Front actions, he said, he focused on practical concerns rather than more academic questions.

“At some level, I have responsibility for the safety and well-being of the people who work under me,” he said.

Elde said he supports discussion of the issues surrounding University research and that openness was one of the design principles behind the new St. Paul campus building, both in construction and philosophy.

Ironically, he said, Earth Liberation Front’s actions will mean increased security around those “open” facilities.

“The safety of the people who work at the University has to be out front so we can have an open dialogue,” he said.

Andrew Pritchard welcomes comments at [email protected]

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]