BREAKING: 2 Animal Activists Facing 6 Months in Jail for Protesting on the Sidewalk

by Will Potter on August 20, 2015

in Terrorism Court Cases

beckham-lagoon-protestTwo animal rights activists in Utah are facing six months in jail for holding peaceful protests against an amusement park’s treatment of animals without first paying $50 and completing a “Free Expression Permit Application.”

On Tuesday evening, activists Jeremy Beckham and Lexie Levitt were visited at their homes by Salt Lake City Police detectives with court orders from nearby Farmington City.

Beckham says that when he saw a Salt Lake City detective at his door, his heart started racing and his body tensed; he quickly started filming, because he is familiar with animal activists being prosecuted as “terrorists” for things like chalking on the sidewalk.

He didn’t know what was about to happen, but he thought it could be serious.

“I’ve been an activist a really long time,” says Beckham, who is a board member with the Utah Animal Rights Coalition. “And I’m honestly shocked” at the charges.

The detective attempted to ask Beckham about other protesters, so they too could be served court orders, but Beckham remained silent and continued filming. He then said “I don’t have anything further to say.”

Lexie Levitt, an organizer with the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, says that when police arrived at her home, they pounded on her doors and windows. She didn’t know what was happening, she said, and at first she was too afraid to answer. When police returned, she learned she was being charged with protesting without a permit as well.

The charges say that the activists “did conduct, promote, manage, aid, solicit attendance at or participate in any advanced planned free speech expression activity without first obtaining a permit for the event.” [View the criminal complaint]

They are class B misdemeanors, punishable by up to six months in jail.

The Blackfish Effect

lagoon-lion-cageThe activists had been protesting animal cruelty at Lagoon Amusement Park, where lions, pumas, elks, kangaroo, zebra, leopards, tigers, and other wild animals are kept in metal cages with concrete floors, without enrichment or stimulation.

Photos taken by the activists revealed animals in barren, filthy conditions as the “Wild Animal Kingdom” train ride passed by their cages.

And in 2013, an amusement park employee was gored by a wildebeest there.

Activists said that the award-winning film Blackfish, which exposed conditions that are dangerous to both animals and humans at Sea World, has resulted in a surge of public awareness about the dangers of animals in captivity.

white-bengal-tiger-lagoonAs Sea World’s profits have plummeted by 84%, they resorted to using spies to infiltrate protest groups like PETA.

Lagoon Amusement Park has done it’s best to keep protesters away as well. When activists gathered outside their corporate headquarters with signs, Lagoon turned on their sprinklers — in the midst of a drought.

“No one should have to fear that the police will pound on your door at 8 o’clock at night to hand you criminal charges in connection with a peaceful protest,” Beckham said. “It is astounding the lengths that Lagoon is willing to go in order to shut up the caring people who are speaking out against their abysmal ‘zoo.'”

Jumping Through All The Hoops

Beckham says what surprises him most about the criminal charges is that the activists had gone to great lengths to ensure they complied with the law.

At the July 18th protest at the amusement park, for which Levitt is being prosecuted, there were about 20 protesters. They all stood across the street, because they did not want to accidentally trespass. They even went down to the courthouse and got a plat map to ensure they would be on public property.

At the July 16th protest at Lagoon offices, for which Beckham is being prosecuted, there were only four people in attendance, and they chose the protest location specifically because it had a public sidewalk where they could stand. (One of the other attendees was Levitt, and the other two were afraid of being identified for this story because they might be prosecuted as well.)

They held signs that said “Stop imprisoning animals,” “Sanctuaries not cages,” and “Lagoon abuses animals.”

The activists occasionally chanted, but never used megaphones or amplified sound.

During their many protests this year, police have driven past and taken photos of protesters, but they have never asked them to leave or threatened them with prosecution.

It appears their abundance of caution might have actually been used by the police against the activists. Beckham and Levitt had both been in contact with the city, alerting them about their protests in advance, and they suspect that’s why they were singled out for criminal charges.

“Free Expression Claim”

Just a few months after the September 11th attacks, Farmington City leaders used public safety concerns to justify a “Free Expression Activities Ordinance.”

The ordinance requires protesters to obtain a “Free Expression Activities Permit,” pay a $50 fee, and obtain insurance before engage in constitutionally protected speech.

The form the city requires asks protesters to explain “reasons for your activity” and also their “free expression claim.”

At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho said the proposal was full of “constitutional defects.” The city passed it anyway.

As the Deseret News noted, the ordinance was passed in advance of animal rights activists protesting the rodeo, in a clear attempt to stifle their speech.

Misguided Priorities

The prosecution—for purely First Amendment activity— was coordinated with multiple police departments in different cities, which is a rare occurrence for a class B misdemeanor.

A Salt Lake City Police Department detective visited the activists at their homes, multiple times, to serve them in person, when the paperwork could have been sent in the mail

And the investigation was led by the Farmington City Chief of Police himself. Chief Wayne Hansen, who was named Utah’s police chief of the year in 2014, authored the probable cause affidavit used in the prosecution, and noted it was based on his “personal observations” of the protesters.

“It’s sad that the Davis County Attorney and the police apparently care more about shielding Lagoon from criticism than they do the First Amendment,” Levitt said.

The police treatment of animal rights activists is radically different than the treatment of animal abusers. Recently, Utah animal rights activists made international news when they disrupted a “pig wrestling” competition, and some of the confederate-flag-waving wrestlers attacked them and slammed them to the ground.

Those individuals are not being prosecuted.

As for Beckham and Levitt, they had another protest planned at Lagoon this Saturday. After speaking with their attorneys, they’ve decided to cancel that demonstration rather than risk additional criminal charges.

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