Prosecutor Charges L.A. Animal Activists
Moving to quell months of aggressive protests by animal rights activists outside the homes of city officials, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office embarked on a legal strategy Friday that officials conceded would push against the boundaries of free speech protections.
“We’re sending a message, and the message is: We all believe in the right of people to protest, the right of people to bring their grievances to the government, the right of people to disagree with the government when disagreement is necessary,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. “But we will not tolerate, we will not accept, threats of violence, harassment or intimidation in this city by any organization.”
Over the last year, activists calling themselves the Animal Defense League have escalated their tactics as they have tried to make the city stop euthanizing animals in city shelters.
The home of David Diliberto, one of the city’s top Animal Services Department officials, was the location for protests this summer that included graffiti, midnight phone calls and a bomb scare that forced an evacuation.
At one point, a member of the league allegedly called the official’s cellphone, leaving a message that said, “Resign or we go after your wife.”
The group’s members have picketed the homes of other city officials, including former Mayor James K. Hahn. They have posted photos and biographies as well as addresses of officials on websites with comments including “Targets” and “Most Wanted Scum.”
The city’s legal strategy against the group has two parts. The first was set in motion Friday, when City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo filed misdemeanor conspiracy charges, saying the group had violated a state law that bars people from threatening or attempting to threaten public officers or employees.
If prosecutors win that case, Delgadillo said, the second step will be to ask a judge to impose terms of probation that will prevent group members from protesting outside the homes of city employees, making threatening phone calls and posting the addresses of the officials on their website.
“The Animal Defense League is a criminal enterprise,” Delgadillo said at a news conference Friday with Villaraigosa by his side. “It promotes and encourages attacks on city workers and against those whose views it does not share.”
The move came a day after Villaraigosa announced that he was firing Animal Services General Manager Guerdon H. Stuckey, who has been a chief target of animal rights groups.
Villaraigosa reiterated Friday that Stuckey was fired because he had not significantly reduced euthanasia at shelters or increased adoption of animals.
The mayor insisted that his decision had not been in response to protests by activists and that the timing of the firing and the city’s legal moves were unrelated.
An officer of the league, however, said he thought the timing was “very curious.”
Jerry Vlasak admitted that his group had committed a laundry list of acts cited in the city’s charges. But he said none of them violated the law, because all were protected free speech.
“We didn’t threaten anybody,” Vlasak said in a phone interview Friday. “Protesting is our legal right.”
Legal experts say a critical issue in the case will be whether the group’s protests amounted to a “true threat,” which is not protected as free speech.
The 1st Amendment gives Americans broad rights to protest government actions -- even to the point of calling for violent action. But when a person’s words become a threat against an individual, the constitutional protection vanishes, courts have ruled.
In one recent case involving that issue, Judge Pamela A. Rymer of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals described the dividing line this way: “While advocating violence is protected” under the 1st Amendment, “threatening a person with violence is not.”
That ruling came in 2002 in a lawsuit that may provide the clearest precedent for what Los Angeles is trying to do. In that case, federal courts ordered militant abortion opponents to stop using their website to display “wanted” posters of doctors who offered abortions.
The 9th Circuit ruled 6 to 5 that the website was not protected speech because the displays were created with the intention of inflicting bodily harm on the physicians.
But proving that the animal rights groups have similarly crossed the constitutional line will be difficult, legal experts said.
“I would say it’s an uphill fight that the government has,” said Jesse Choper, a law professor at UC Berkeley.
Delgadillo admitted that Los Angeles is moving into difficult legal territory, saying the case is “the first criminal complaint of its kind.” But he said it was necessary to protect city employees.
The complaint filed by the city cited 62 specific acts allegedly committed since January 2004. They amounted to harassment and intimidation, the prosecutors said. If convicted on all 14 criminal counts, the league could face fines of up to $120,000, and its members could face probation.
Among the specific acts, the group is accused of calling officials’ homes, taunting family members and sending a text message to Diliberto that read, “666,” the sign of the devil.
The court filing also cites a photograph of Diliberto on the group’s website that was overlaid with images of bullet holes.
Vlasak insisted Friday that his group held protests outside Diliberto’s home because he had refused to answer their questions at any other location.
The league official said members carried out the protests only during reasonable hours and off Diliberto’s property -- a point that Delgadillo disputed.
Vlasak was defiant, saying it was unlikely that any conviction would stop him and other members of the group from continuing their efforts.
“No way will we pay one cent in fines,” he said. “We only have about three or four hundred dollars.”
Times staff writers Henry Weinstein and Richard Fausset contributed to this report.
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