PETA claims demonstration at Utah school was protected speech
By The Associated Press
DENVER Animal activists who were threatened with arrest for handing out pro-vegetarian leaflets near a Utah school were protected by the First Amendment, their attorney said this week in federal appeals court.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is appealing a ruling by a federal judge that animal-rights activists cannot picket on a sidewalk next to a school because it interferes with school activities. The case is being considered by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
About a half-dozen PETA activists arrived at the court before the May 7 hearing, distributing pro-vegetarian leaflets and carrying posters with the words: "Does your food have a face?"
Jessica Sandler, a federal liaison for PETA, said the demonstration was aimed at raising awareness about animal rights and about the lawsuit, which she said has significant meaning to students.
"Kids care about animal cruelty. This is information that students want to have," Sandler said.
Members of PETA filed a lawsuit in federal court in 1999 arguing the school district had no right to stop them from demonstrating against eating beef near Eisenhower Junior High School in suburban Salt Lake City.
Between five and 12 PETA members distributed leaflets and carried signs on several occasions in January 1999 at Eisenhower, which flew a McDonald's corporate sponsorship flag. PETA claims the fast-food company mistreats animals and promotes an unhealthy diet.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson granted summary judgment to the school district last summer, saying that people whose presence or acts interfere with the peaceful conduct of school activities may be asked to leave, regardless of the content of their speech.
But PETA attorney Brian Barnard said on May 7 that a Utah statute cited by the school police officer who threatened the activists with arrest is unconstitutional. The statute, passed in 1973, allows school administrators to prohibit behavior that disrupts school activities.
Barnard said the law violates the First Amendment guarantees of free speech, the right to assembly and the right to petition government.
"Schools are not off-limits to free speech and it's frightening they would suggest that," he said.
He also said the statute was misapplied because the protesters hadn't done anything the day they were threatened with arrest, Jan. 20, 1999, that could have caused a disruption.
Peggy E. Stone, an assistant Utah attorney general representing the school's principal and police officer, said it was recently discovered that the Utah statute only applies to institutions of higher learning.
She said the case may face further review on First Amendment claims, but she is confident her clients' actions were lawful.
"There was a material disruption inside this junior high school. And the principal and police officer fully complied with the First Amendment when they asked the protesters to leave," Stone said. "When it's content-neutral, time, place and manner, then government actors can put restrictions on free speech."
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