First Amendment rights and the pursuit of animal rights

Many decades have intervened since my First Amendment rights were trampled by the FBI. The year was 1970 and Richard Nixon was appearing at the Fort Wayne (IN) War Memorial Coliseum. A group of us from a small, nearby college with a long history of peace activism decided to take in the spectacle; I suppose our clothes and hair tipped off The Man that we weren’t enthusiastic supporters of the Viet Nam war. We were detained, our tickets confiscated “for verification” and never returned.

We were angry. We felt powerless. We returned to school and told our story. It found its way into the Peace Studies bulletin, and that was the end of it. Today, older and wiser and again confronted with a suspected infringement upon First Amendment rights, I knew exactly what to do: Contact the American Civil Liberties Union.

Getting the runaround at the Shrine Circus

2012 Shrine Circus outreach – click image for an account

The Shrine Circus arrives in Missoula, MT for five performances over two days in April. In 2012, a group of us–larger than any other circus outreach up until then–assembled at the Adams Center field house on the University of Montana campus. We were well over the required 100 feet from the entrance, lined up along a plaza-like area and well out of the flow of foot traffic (see picture above). Still, we were highly visible to everyone entering and could offer Break the Chain flyers to any takers. Adams Center officials told us we’d have to leave and stand in the Free Speech Zone elsewhere on campus–nowhere near the circus venue. We protested and were then told we needed a permit. Persistent if nothing else, we tracked down a university vice president; he kindly called in a permit. Campus police made it starkly clear that the Shriners were the paying customers, and we would be tolerated only as long as we complied with demands.

Fast forward to April 2013. Three weeks before the circus, I contacted the Adams Center to set the permit process in motion. “We’re prepared for you this year,” I was told. “We’ve designated a Free Speech Zone for you at the venue.” Cool! I imagined the same perfect location, but now with the First Amendment’s blessing. “Can we approach people to distribute fliers?” A rather reluctant “yes” was followed by, “as long as you don’t shove them in people’s faces.” I assured the administrator this would not happen.

When the day arrived, we found that our Free Speech Zone was far removed from our 2012 location; now we found ourselves well south of the main entrance, which circus-goers approached from the north and west. The required 100-foot mark was even behind a tree! We protested, and the boundary was moved up to just in front of the tree. Many of our signs were no doubt unreadable from our distant position on the grassy knoll, and only if they yelled could we hear the attendees tell us to “get a life.”

Not wanting to jeopardize our ability to deliver even a limited message, I entered the Adams Center to confirm what I had been told by the administrator about flyer distribution. But the rules had changed–handing out flyers couldn’t be allowed as this would impede foot traffic. Hmmm. It was looking more and more like the First Amendment–and even the Adams Center’s own policy–aren’t worth much when the circus comes to town.

Who ya gonna call? ACLU.

Feeling some of the same anger that the Nixon incident produced–but not the same powerlessness–I contacted the Montana American Civil Liberties Union legal division with the story. Six weeks later, I got word that an intern had been researching the issue and legal counsel had determined that the university improperly infringed upon our free speech rights. The message concluded with, “You may be interested to know that some of the leading cases on the subject (of free speech) arise from plaintiffs who are demonstrating/leafleting/educating for more humane treatment of animals!” Interested, yes…but not surprised. To suggest that species other than Homo sapiens are owed consideration if not (shudder) rights themselves is a threat to human supremacy and all that implies–from the very personal (the food we eat, how we are entertained) to the domestic and global economies built on the institutionalized cruelty of animal exploitation.

Our legal counsel pointed out that the University didn’t follow its own policy in dealing with us:

For those with a primary interest in the associated case law:

This is not a large victory for animals. In fact, I’m not sure that it’s rightly called a victory at all; we are merely looking for a prospective remedy, not a judicial finding. But justice for animals cannot be won if their advocates are silenced, and the Fourth of July is the perfect time to celebrate (and demand and safeguard) free speech and our right to protest. Animals have a nearly imperceptible voice on our human-dominated globe, and none in the halls of justice. Supposing those of us who speak in their stead were rendered mute?

The ACLU gets the last word:

Update: When informed of the problem by the ACLU, the university’s lawyer worked with the venue staff to ensure that no further First Amendment issues occurred. Since that time, we’ve conducted outreach and offered brochures to circus-goers as they enter the venue. Friendly security staff is present to ensure that safety–including ours–is maintained. From my perspective, it was a civil and satisfying outcome.

Comment on this post at animal law blog Animal Blawg.

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