human rights news & views

SLAPP writ fails against animal activist

Ralph Hahnheuser, animal rights activistIn November 2003, animal rights activist Ralph Hahnheuser stole onto private property on Australia’s south coast and poured shredded ham into the feed troughs of sheep awaiting live export to the Middle East the next day.  His stated intention was to "taint the product or the animals in such a way that they are simply not acceptable for halal slaughter or consumption by Muslim people in Middle Eastern countries."  He filmed his actions and sent the tape to media outlets.

The shipment of some 72,000 sheep was cancelled as a result.

In addition to bringing criminal charges and a $1.4 million compensation claim, two companies affected by Hahnheuser’s action took the unusual step of charging him with breaching the Trade Practices Act.  Section 45DB thereof prohibits ‘secondary boycotts’ that inhibit international trade.  That the ban is aimed at industrial action by trade unions is made clear by an exemption covering actions intended to protect consumers or the environment.  This exemption had not been tested until Hahnheuser and his pizza ham came along.

In October 2007 the Federal Court of Australia found in his favour, defining sheep as part of the environment and Hahnheuser’s actions thus a mode of environmental protection.

The Court has been praised for protecting freedom of expression in Australia, which otherwise lacks a bill of rights.

Simon Ramsay, president of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation, thinks otherwise, describing Hahnheuser’s action as ‘economic sabotage’ and his legal victory as opening the door for ‘agricultural terrorism’ and ‘industrial terrorism.’  The Farmers’ Federation is lobbying for legislative change.

Local human rights NGO Liberty Victoria is also seeking law reform.  How would human rights activism fare against the Trade Practices Act?  Humans have rights beyond consumer protection.

Concerned about the rise of SLAPP suits in Australia — that is, Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation "brought not for the purpose of righting a wrong, but for the purpose of using the corporations’ financial power to silence public criticism" — Liberty Victoria wants public participation protected in law in Australia, as it is in certain US legislatures.  The amendment desired should not stop companies accessing the courts, but rather "empower the courts to award punitive damages if an action is found to have been issued for the improper purpose of stifling public debate."

Ralph Hahnheuser is campaign manager for Animal Liberation South Australia, which says it will undertake similar actions elsewhere if live sheep export continues.


  1. Sarah Henderson
    11 January 2008 | 9:51 am

    I can’t congratulate Ralph enough for his courageous act to help end cruelty to animals, knowing the probable outcome. That he won the case was amazing and a great day for justice.

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