California’s academic researchers now have a reason to breathe a little easier at night.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 2296 – The Researcher Protection Act of 2008 – into law on Sept. 28. The new law will enhance the ability of local law enforcement and prosecutors to protect academic researchers and their families from threatening and destructive tactics employed by extremist protesters.
The legislation was introduced by state Representative Gene Mullin (D-South San Francisco) and received strong support from the University of California.
“University of California researchers are leaders in scientific and technological breakthroughs that are enhancing the lives of Californians and all Americans,” said UC President Mark G. Yudof in a public statement. “This law will provide law enforcement with some of the tools necessary to help protect academic researchers so they can continue to perform ground-breaking research without the threat of violence.”
UC has seen an increase in violence against its researchers by extremists in recent years, including an Aug. 2 firebombing incident at UC Santa Cruz where a researcher and his family were forced to flee their burning home from a second story window.
While violent attacks like these are already punishable under California state law, AB 2296 will provide further assistance to law enforcement in the investigation of crimes against researchers, said Darci Sears, legislative director at the office of state Representative Gene Mullin.
“There are already laws in place to prosecute the offenders once they are found,” she said. “The difficulty is in identifying these individuals and that is where the bill is trying to help.”
Sears said AB 2296 will do this by filling gaps in existing California state law.
“Before this bill, California’s trespass law basically stated that a person is not considered trespassing on private property until the resident asks them to leave,” she said. “However, the situations we are seeing are where protestors are trespassing on residences in the middle of the night. With this law, they are committing a crime when they step foot on the property.”
AB 2296 also protects researchers from having their information posted online with the intent that it be used to commit a threat or act of violence against that individual.
“There has been a lot of online targeting against individuals, especially at UCLA,” Sears said. “Prior to this law, it was not illegal to publish information about academic researchers with the intent that the information be used to threaten or harass them.”
However, supporters of the bill say that while it does monitor the online publication of information about researchers, it does not impede on the first amendment rights of protestors.
“[UC] is obviously very concerned with the well-being and safety of our researchers,” said Chris Harrington, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President. “One of the main reasons [UC] wanted this legislation is because information was being published about our researchers which was then being used to prevent their work. [UC] thought that this legislation struck a good balance between protecting academic researchers while not violating the protestors’ freedom of speech.”
Sears said Mullin’s office worked hard to ensure that the bill did not illegally impact the first amendment.
“We do not want to stifle free speech,” she said. “With AB 2296 it is not illegal for anybody to post general information about the researchers or to criticize them or their work. This legislation is only intended to guard against publications that imminently cause violence or a threat of violence against the researchers and their families.”
Still, some animal rights groups question the need for the new legislation.
“State and federal laws already exist to protect citizens and businesses from violence and criminal acts,” said Ryan Huling, college campaign coordinator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “We therefore see no real need for legislation like Bill 2296, other than to provide more protection for animal abusers than what is afforded to ordinary citizens.”
ERICA LEE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.