LA Progressive

Journalists, Animal Defenders Support Santa Monica “Pony Ride” Activist

I was proud to learn this week that the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed amicus “friend of the court” briefs (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Amicus Brief Filed 12-21-15 and ALDF Brief Filed Dec. 21, 2015) to support my free speech and right to petition case now before the California Court of Appeal. The case stems from a controversy swirling around a pony ride and zoo that once operated at the Santa Monica Main Street Farmers Market, a few blocks from my home. In September 2014, the Santa Monica City Council voted to give preference to non-animal vendors after hearing heartfelt complaints about the sad and disturbing nature of the exhibits.

Following the vote, animal vendors Tawni Angel and Jason Nester filed a lawsuit against me, the author of a petition now signed by over 2300 people, calling for the closure of the pony ride and zoo.

I went to court, Superior Court, to ask Judge Lisa Hart Cole to grant my motion to dismiss this lawsuit early on as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) designed to silence public debate. Judge Cole dismissed part of the suit – a request for an injunction against my speech and an emotional distress claim –but did not dismiss the rest.

In filing the amicus brief, the Reporters Committee challenged the principal argument in Angel and Nester’s lawsuit — that I acted with reckless disregard for the truth because I publicly disagreed with the opinion of Santa Monica animal control officers who approved of tethering ponies to a metal pole to circle a tiny circumference for hours on hard ground in a commotion-filled market with a band playing next to the animals. Many of us in Santa Monica and beyond called this practice animal abuse.

The Reporters Committee defended the rights of citizens and journalists to publicly disagree with the opinions of government employees and challenged the lower court’s interpretation of defamation law.

In filing the amicus brief, the Reporters Committee defended the rights of citizens and journalists to publicly disagree with the opinions of government employees — in this case animal control officers — and challenged the lower court’s interpretation of defamation law and the legal precedent set by the landmark US Supreme Court ruling in the New York Times vs. Sullivan.

“Instead of using the actual malice standard articulated in the wake of Sullivan, the Superior Court fashioned its own unprecedented understanding of actual malice that ignores years of reasoned constitutional justifications,” reads the brief filed by the firm Jean-Paul Jassy and Kevin Vick for the Reporters Committee. The brief also reads, “The Superior Court’s understanding of actual malice conflicts with the Founders’ belief and subsequent interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court that the First Amendment – protects and even encourages – the public to challenge the government.”

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a big deal, for it represents E.W. Scripps, a company owning 19 television stations, the California Broadcasters Association, a group representing 1,000 television and radio stations, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade association representing nearly 850 daily, weekly and student newspapers, the Society for Professional Journalists, founded in 1909 to protect the free flow of information, and the Ventura County Star, a daily news operation serving all of Ventura County.

Personally, I am honored to have the support of state and national journalists, along with animal protectionists, who recognize the importance of safeguarding the First Amendment, both for ordinary citizens and for journalists. Nowhere is it written in the Bill of Rights that the First Amendment outlaws disagreement with government employees. In fact, the First Amendment was written to protect our right to disagree with government policies and practices. Can you imagine what our nation would be like if a citizen had to figuratively wear duct tape in the presence of city employees or if a journalist risked liability every time the reporter investigated suspected government wrongdoing?

In addition to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a national non-profit, also filed an amicus brief to support my appeal. “Animal rights advocates protect those who cannot protect themselves; they provide a voice for the voiceless,” reads the brief produced by the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. ” Stifling these voices based on nothing more than a government investigation violates the First Amendment.” The ALDF has sought to end animal mistreatment, including cases involving a “suffering bear in solitary confinement at a roadside zoo”, the housing of a tiger at a gas station, and a “massive coyote hunting contest.”

Attorneys Jeremy Rosen and Felix Shafir of Horvitz & Levy, an appellate specialist law firm, are representing me before the California Court of Appeal. Oral arguments are expected in the spring of 2016, with a Court ruling in the summer. If I win on appeal, I will ask the Court to order the plaintiffs to reimburse the costly attorney fees. Angel and Nester’s lawsuit against my co-defendant Danielle Charney was dismissed earlier this year as a SLAPP suit, resulting in the plaintiffs reimbursing Charney’s attorneys for $20,000 in lawyer fees.

While some may argue that this case is just about a pony ride or small zoo so who cares, the truth is it’s about a lot more – it’s about the right to express an opinion, the right to disagree with someone wearing a badge or uniform, and the right to petition one’s government for a redress of grievances.

Stay tuned.

Marcy Winograd