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Wednesday, May 10, 2006 

Outrageously broad injunction granted against animal rights "extremists".

Hammer another nail into the coffin of the right to protest. GlaxoSmithKline not only have managed to get an injunction against the animal rights protestors who have sent letters out to shareholders, they've in effect put in motion the start of a process that will result in shareholders names and addresses being withheld from the public.

The injunction itself is laughable. No one actually knows who has sent out the letters, seeing as they are anonymous, but the guesswork done has pointed the finger either at SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) or SPEAK. It is meant to stop both any more letters from being sent, and to stop any protestors from carrying out the incredibly weak so-called threat to publish their home address on the internet if they don't sell their shares in Glaxo. Because it's not known who those behind the campaign are, the injunction applies to any website which publishes any details of any shareholder, and to anyone who sends any similar letter to a shareholder. The threat behind it is that anyone who does can be held in contempt of court, which carries a possible prison sentence.

It's incredibly difficult to see how the high court could issue such a widely-reaching injunction and actually have it enforced, let alone the chilling effect such an order has on the right to free speech, freedom to publish and protest which it infringes upon. While I have neither seen the letter in full or the injunction in full, as I can't find the damn things anywhere, the letter is by most standards of animal rights extremists, which is what the media are calling them, pretty mild stuff. Some quotes from it are:

“We are a group set up to hold Huntingdon Life Sciences [HLS] accountable for its acts of animal cruelty." “Holding HLS accountable means holding GlaxoSmithKline to its promise not to use HLS ever again." "The only way to hold GlaxoSmithKline to it's [sic] PROMISE is to target it's [sic] financial vulnerability." "We are therefore giving you this opportunity to sell your shares in Glaxo-SmithKline." "Over the next two weeks every shareholder of GlaxoSmithKline will be receiving this letter."

The letter seemingly ends with the line "The choice is yours" or words to that effect. But what sort of threat do these people really pose? They already have the names and addresses of those who they've sent the letters to. The names and addresses of shareholders are freely available, and rightly so. If these people really meant business, they could have just not bothered with the letters and published the names on their website(s), which they haven't done. They could have staged similar attacks to what some extremists have in the past, such as throwing bricks through windows, damaging cars, and even planting small bombs.

Instead what we have seen has been possibly the grossest overreaction that could have been imagined. Glaxo has around 170,000 small investors. No animal rights group has the resources to send letters to every single one of them, let alone put every single one of those addresses up on the internet. Even if a small number were put up online, anyone who had wanted to find out who owned Glaxo shares close to them could have done so without gaining the attention of anyone, as the addresses are freely available. They could therefore have gone straight to violent protest, or even non-violent, by turning up outside their houses. No, instead what has happened is that Glaxo's chief executive has come out and said that their actions are "deplorable". An investors group went further and called it "terrorism".

You would think that you wouldn't need to tell people what terrorism actually is, especially in today's climate, but hell, it seems we still need to. Merriam-Webster defines it as:
violence (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands

So no, I somehow don't think an incredibly mild letter amounts to that. According to the investors group, we could define the likes of balliffs letters as terrorism, or demands from credit companies for payments as such. Even some letters sent to newspapers or MPs could conceivably come under such a definition. This is not to say that some animal rights group have carried out what could be called acts of terrorism, or that I even agree with their stand; I don't. I also wouldn't support the likes of Pro-Test, who also seem to have just one image of what an animal rights protestor is in their head, and tend to paint all the animal rights groups as extremists. Even more shamefully, the media also seem to be slipping into doing so.

The issue here though is the wider right to protest. On Monday we saw the likelihood that protesting outside parliament will be further curtailed. Today someone taking a name and address from the public domain and publishing it on a blog may well risk the possibility of being imprisoned. As was seen when the News of the Screws took an injunction out to stop Mr Mahzer Mahmood from having his photo published, only the rich and powerful can afford to get such legal judgements in their favour. What's next? A defence company that stops a group such as CAAT from sending letters to their shareholders, asking them to think again? It may be an act of futility or even stupidity, but does that mean it should be illegal? It seems from the reaction to the letter to Glaxo shareholders that a lot tend to think so.

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Main Entry: ter·ror
Pronunciation: 'ter-&r
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French terreur, from Latin terror, from terrEre to frighten; akin to Greek trein to be afraid, flee, tremein to tremble -- more at TREMBLE
1 : a state of intense fear
2 a : one that inspires fear : SCOURGE b : a frightening aspect the terrors of invasion c : a cause of anxiety : WORRY d : an appalling person or thing; especially : BRAT
4 : violence (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands, insurrection and revolutionary terror
synonym see FEAR

If your going to provide the definition of terror give the full definition not just the part that supports your argument.

I gave further examples of what could be described as terrorism if those letters were defined as such. I think that the word terrorism is bandied about far too freely. Only the definition which I gave describes what I think should be defined as terrorism. What some animal rights extremists do can amount to terrorism, or a campaign of fear, which I think would be a better way to describe it.

By the way, Blair has promised to do exactly what I said would happen, which is witholding shareholders names and addresses from public scrutiny. Expect that the defence companies will demand similar treatment if the likes of GlaxoSmithKline get their way.

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