Senate committee passes researcher protection measure
August 15, 2008
By Andy Fell
The state Senate Public Safety Committee on Aug. 14 approved legislation that would help enhance law enforcement's ability to protect academic researchers and their families from acts of violence and intimidation by anti-animal research extremists.
The committee passed Assembly Bill 2296 on a bipartisan 3-0 vote, sending the bill to the Senate Appropriations Committee, with action expected possibly as early as next week. If the Senate Appropriations Committee determines costs to be minimal, the bill may be sent directly to the Senate floor, which may also act on the bill as early as next week.
If approved, the UC-sponsored bill would then go back to the Assembly, which would need to vote on the Senate-amended version of the legislation. The legislation, titled the California Animal Enterprise Protection Act, is authored by Assemblymember Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, and its co-authors are Assemblymember Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.
The Aug. 14 committee vote followed a hearing during which UC research and law enforcement officials testified in support of the legislation.
Under AB2296, it would be a misdemeanor crime to trespass on the residential property of an academic researcher for the purpose of chilling or interfering with that researcher's academic freedom -- the freedom to pursue and publish their work. It would also be a crime to publish information about a researcher, or their immediate family, with the intent that someone else would commit a crime of violence or threatened violence against that researcher.
The legislation follows a series of incidents including vandalism and harassment of researchers at UC campuses, notably UCLA, where a researcher's basement was flooded and a vanpool vehicle was torched, and UC Berkeley, where protests have been held outside researchers' homes. Most recently, two firebombs were set at the homes of UC Santa Cruz researchers. A researcher and his family, including two young children, escaped from a second-floor window as smoke filled the house.
M.R.C. Greenwood, chancellor emeritus of UC Santa Cruz and a professor of nutrition at UC Davis, told the committee that the new law was needed to protect scientists performing lawful research from attacks by radical animal rights terrorists.
"This is not about animal welfare or animal rights, but about protecting researchers at our institutions from being attacked or killed," Greenwood said. "Investigators who are providing new treatments, new advances for our economy, should not be forced to make a choice between their work and their family's safety."
Two UC police officers spoke in support of the legislation. In written testimony, Sgt. Karen Alberts noted that since August 2007, when researchers' personal information was posted online, 31 UC Berkeley faculty members had been victimized by threatening e-mails and phone calls, or harassed at their homes. Masked people repeatedly visited researchers' homes late at night, throwing rocks, breaking windows and yelling threats through bullhorns, Alberts noted, adding that 20 criminal incidents of home property damage had been documented in the past year.
"It is time for the state to extend to researchers the same protections granted to elected officials and reproductive health workers," Alberts told the committee.
UCLA Police Chief Karl Ross told the committee that AB 2296 would provide tools to help law enforcement prosecute those who carry out extreme acts.
"We've seen the results, we've seen the terror in researchers and their families," Ross said. "Any tools that would aid us in prosecuting these individuals would be gratefully appreciated."
State Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that has previously passed the bill, also addressed the committee.
"I'm here to show my strong support for the measure," Corbett said. The trespass provision is an important tool for local law enforcement to use in building a case, she said.
Representatives of the University of Southern California and other education interests also urged support of the bill.
There were no witnesses in opposition. Francisco Lobaco of the American Civil Liberties Union stressed that the ACLU does not oppose AB 2296, but he expressed concerns about the definition of an "academic researcher." As written, the bill could apply to any student in higher education, he said.
Romero said that she shared that concern but hoped that the language could be further refined after being passed by the committee.
Summing up, Romero recalled that animal rights issues had surfaced while she was a graduate student in psychology at UC Riverside.
"I have questioned animal research, and I support the right to raise questions -- but never to threaten the lives of children," she said. "Animal welfare is an emotional issue, but that is not part of the discussion here."
A copy of AB2296, supporting material and other background information is available at www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/animalresearch.
The University of California Office of the President's public affairs office contributed to this report.
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