In the United States of America, and to an even stronger extent in the State of California, the First Amendment to our federal Constitution (and its state counterpart) guarantees freedom of speech.
To petition, protest, and advocate before governmental bodies and public marketplaces are constitutional rights and therefore protected speech. This lawsuit is an attempt to bully me and silence dissent in the City of Santa Monica, where the pony ride and petting zoo have been the subject of criticism and protests for years, long before my personal involvement.
In consultation with counsel, I intend to file an ANTI-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion to protect my freedom of speech rights – and those of others who might otherwise be deterred by coercive litigation from exercising their rights — and to defend the rights of suffering animals, sentient beings with emotional lives worthy of dignity and compassion.
I have repeatedly made overtures to the pony ride operators, introducing Jason, Tawni’s husband, to Phil Brock, the Parks Commissioner, to see if they might be willing to compromise and move their animal exhibits to a more spacious and tranquil environment, where the ponies could be taken off the metal bar and walked with a gentle lead at a city park.
The City Council resolution relating to the ponies directed City staff to explore alternatives elsewhere in the City for the pony ride to operate in a more congenial environment for the animals. To my knowledge, the pony operators have not been interested in compromise and have repeatedly refused to consider more humane alternatives.
While the operators repeatedly and publicly attack my character, I know that I have only told the truth, expressing my opinion, both in words and photographs, throughout this period of protest, in which 1,450 people signed my petition to shut down the animal exhibits. Additionally, records obtained under the California Public Records Act have surfaced past complaints about the animal exhibits.
Beyond that, I learned that a separate protest in 2005 resulted in approximately another thousand petition signatures from market visitors disturbed by the sight of ponies tethered to a metal bar, circling for hours on hard ground, unable to turn around or seek water on their own during a hot summer day.
Not only do local residents find these exhibits objectionable, some of my neighbors boycotting the Main Street farmers market, but Marc Bekoff, noted scientist and colleague of Jane Goodall, with whom I consulted months ago, calls the exhibits “thoroughly inhumane” — adding, “Tethering animals so they cannot have freedom of movement and the freedom to get away from harassment and noise is as inhumane as keeping the animals in tiny cages in petting zoos, where they suffer physically and emotionally.”
I am a public high school special education teacher, working with at risk students struggling with autism, emotional disturbance, attention deficit disorder and specific learning disabilities. I take seriously what we teach our children and want our youngsters to learn that animals are wonderful companions who deserve to be treated humanely and afforded, as the city contract stipulates, “reasonable freedom of movement.”
If a lawsuit like this is allowed to go forward, it will chill ongoing local and national political debate on a range of subjects, from animal exploitation and non-human rights to overdevelopment and corporate greed to fracking and climate change.
The right to dissent is critical to a democracy.
This lawsuit is a publicity stunt to circumvent the city council’s action, which was a legislative decision that cannot be directly challenged because, with few exceptions, the council’s decisions are immune from litigation.
Additionally, under defamation law, the pony operator does not have grounds to go forward because she is a public figure, whose animal treatment was the target of a year-long public protest in 2005.
Hence this subject — the prolonged tethering of animals — is a matter of public interest and debate, which only underscores the need to allow the political process to unfold without fear of retaliation.
This is the reason for the ANTI-SLAPP law, which allows defendants to call for the immediate dismissal of a lawsuit not likely to prevail. The ANTI-SLAPP law is intended to safeguard our First Amendment rights, which are essential to protect and preserve our democracy.
In their lawsuit, the animal operators object to my signs which read “Stop Animal Abuse: Free the Ponies and Petting Zoo.” It is my opinion that tethering ponies to a metal bar and forcing them to circle for hours on hard ground is institutionally abusive. It is wrong to do this in Santa Monica and it is wrong to do it in other cities, where such tethering has been outlawed.
Ultimately what is at stake here is the right of ordinary citizens to protest and petition their government for redress of grievances, as well as the right of animal lovers everywhere to advocate for humane treatment of non-human companions. My husband Buddy Gottlieb and I are the proud guardians of three rescue cats and want our beautiful city of Santa Monica to uphold the dignity of animals, as well.”
Marcy Winograd, Santa Monica