CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--Britain is weighing tough new measures to crack down on intimidating tactics used by a radical minority of animal-rights activists. In a report published on 30 July, the government proposes new criminal penalties for protests that cause "harassment, alarm, or distress," to be enforced by a newly created special police unit and network of 43 prosecutors.
The move comes in the wake of animal-rights campaigns that contributed to the University of Cambridge's decision to abandon a primate research facility this year and that now threaten to derail construction of a building at the University of Oxford. In addition to outlawing harassment of people at home, the government seeks to make it an offense for protesters to return within 3 months to a place they've been ordered to leave. The government also plans to extend antiharassment laws to apply to all employees of an organization rather than specific individuals and may outlaw acts that cause economic damage to research-related operations. The government did not seek--but is considering--a single law targeting animal-rights extremists.
Scientists hope the new measures will be more effective than past efforts at deterring threatening behavior. Personal intimidation, such as calling researchers "torturers" in letters to neighbors, has increased in the last 18 months, says Mark Matfield, executive director of the Research Defence Society (RDS), which represents scientists engaged in animal research. Over the past year, instances of damage to property--mostly involving corrosive substances thrown at vehicles--have doubled, and protests at the homes of company directors have increased by 45%, according to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry. "It's great that the Home Office is doing something about this at long last," says neuroscientist E. Barry Keverne, chair of the Royal Society's Committee on Animals in Research.
But the protesters say they're unimpressed. Robert Cogswell, co-founder of the group behind the Cambridge and Oxford protests, sees the tougher measures as a "knee-jerk reaction" to complaints from pharmaceutical companies. "The government needs to think carefully why people are engaging in actions," he says, arguing that many are disappointed over its failure to deliver a promised inquiry into animal research. Cogswell insists that the group, which now calls itself Speak, can win by legal means. However, he says, "the more people feel disempowered, the more they're going to take the law into their own hands."
The U.K. government report (pdf)