Ringling Bros. Sues ASPCA Using Mafia Law

by Will Potter on September 7, 2007

in Terrorism Court Cases

You might already know that the SHAC 7 were convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” for running a controversial website that listed personal information about corporations tied to the notorious animal testing lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. You might not know, though, that before that the corporations SHAC targeted hit back with various other legal tactics. Restraining orders. Injunctions. Lawsuits for damages. Notably, they even used the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, RICO, a law meant to go after the mob. Eventually, a federal “terrorism” law got the corporations what they wanted, and put the animal advocates behind bars, but that came after this series of aggressive legal moves.

Taking a page from that playbook, last week Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus continued its beleaguered attack on animal advocates by suing the ASPCA and other animal rights groups using RICO. Yep, a law meant to go after the mafia being exploited to target animal groups.

Groups like the ASPCA never sent anyone to swim with the fishes (well, not in that Godfather kind of way). But according to Bloomberg:

“This lawsuit is a direct result of the animal rights extremists’ agenda to deny families in the United States entertainment choices like the circus and their ongoing conspiracy to harm Feld Entertainment,” company spokesman Stephen Payne said in a statement.

It might seem like a stretch to argue that campaigning against animal cruelty is akin to mob bosses roughing up business owners. But it’s not that surprising if you look at how else Ringling has targeted animal groups.
According to The Washington Post, Ringling paid one investigator more than $1 million a year to infiltrate animal groups, and
hired a former CIA deputy director to help spy.

Ringling’s internal documents showed that the circus hired private investigators who infiltrated several animal rights groups across the country, obtained credit card and other personal data and stole stacks of confidential papers, such as donor lists and strategy memos.

Peta sued Ringling over this, and lost because the jury found no harm (for instance, Ringling’s attorneys argued that Peta’s fundraising kept going strong during this period). [On a related note, check out this great Salon.com article by Jeff Stein on Ringling's escapades.]

The main point here, though, is not that Ringling has spied, snooped, stolen and smeared animal advocates. (Unfortunately, in the scheme of corporate abuses, that’s pretty tame. Pfizer, a drug company targeted by SHAC and a promoter of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, is being sued by the Nigerian government for giving children an experimental drug that killed 11 and injured 189. And Chiquita has admitted paying $1.7 million to right wing death squads. The list goes on and on and on…)

The big concern, I think, is the long road Ringling has been going down. We keep seeing this over and over. Social justice advocates target a corporation, the corporation hits back to protect profits and public image, and if the corporation doesn’t succeed at first it keeps hitting and hitting and hitting, exploiting any legal tools available. In this case, that means using a mob law to go after animal groups. And if that doesn’t work? What next? Pressuring the government to use the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act?

For nonprofit organizations, who don’t have deep pockets like Ringling, these lawsuits suck up scarce time and resources. More importantly, though, they instill a level of fear in everyday people working for social change, forcing them to wonder if they’ll get sued for being a little too effective.

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