Santa Monica pony ride owners, accused of abuse by animal rights activist, prevented from suing for libel
Marcy Winograd’s campaign against Tawni’s Ponies and Petting Farm began in March 2014, when Winograd launched an online petition claiming the Santa Monica Farmers Market attraction was “cruel and inhumane.”
She accused the couple who owned the ponies, Tawni Angel and Jason Nester, of forcing injured animals to work, of exposing them to heat and noise, of providing filthy water. For months, Winograd led weekly protests at the Ocean Park venue. She urged the city to end this “decade-long animal cruelty disguised as children’s entertainment.”
In September 2014, the Santa Monica City Council, dismayed to find itself in the middle of an animal rights controversy, voted to seek activities without animals for children at the Sunday market. In May 2015, when their contract expired, the ponies were exiled from Main Street.
That was not the end of it.
Angel and Nester filed a defamation lawsuit against Winograd. In response, Winograd filed a motion claiming the lawsuit was an attempt to squelch her freedom of speech. (This is known as an anti-SLAPP motion; SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”)
Last year, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge found for Angel and Nester, ruling the defamation action could proceed because Winograd knew that officials had determined the couple did not abuse their animals, but continued to claim they did.
Winograd appealed, and this month, a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal’s 2nd District sided with her, tossing the libel suit.
This decision should be hailed by journalists everywhere as an important victory for free speech. But for some reason, it feels a little icky to me.
The court essentially said that Winograd was free to tarnish Angel in print and online, because Winograd believed what she said was true, and because her goal was to change a government policy. Because of this, her statements about the pony ride operator, said the court, were protected by “legislative privilege.”
Winograd’s attorney, Jeremy Rosen, explained, “‘Legislative privilege’ has to be tied to some sort of legislative petitioning, and in this case it was clear — the articles and protests were all designed with a single goal: getting the city of Santa Monica to not renew its contact for pony rides and the petting zoo.”
Angel’s attorney, Don Chomiak, said he will ask the California Supreme Court to review the ruling.
“If allowed to stand,” he told me in an email, “the Court of Appeal’s decision puts everyone at risk of being defamed in the press or on the Internet. The person whose reputation has been ruined will have no way to fight back under the law.”
I agree philosophically with the ruling — it’s important to protect raucous debate about public policy — but it does not feel entirely righteous to me.
Winograd, 62, is a special education teacher at Venice High School and longtime political activist. She lives walking distance from the Sunday farmers market. For years, she said, the sight of ponies walking in circles, their halters tied to metal spokes, made her uncomfortable. (The device, a “hot walker,” is commonly used to exercise horses.) Angel always walked slowly with the horses and riders.
Angel’s petting zoo also offended Winograd. The pens were too small, she felt. Though she is not an expert, she said, the animals seemed depressed.
I think it’s entirely possible to object to pony rides without vilifying the people who run them.
But Winograd took a different tack. On local websites, such as Santa Monica Patch and L.A. Progressive, and on Facebook, she accused Angel and her husband, Jason Nester, of violating state laws that prohibit animal cruelty. In emails to Santa Monica officials, she cited laws she believed Angel had broken, and asked for an investigation.
City animal control officers and a police sergeant with years of horse experience investigated. They found no evidence of animal abuse. The ponies, they said, were healthy and well-tended. Winograd pressed on.
“The 1st Amendment gives us an opportunity to disagree with those in law enforcement, and anyone in uniform,” Winograd told me Tuesday when we met for coffee on Main Street. “If people had to run around fearing being sued all the time, we would probably see little legislative change. ”
I have always respected Winograd’s political dedication. Running as an antiwar candidate, she tried to unseat the hawkish Democratic Rep. Jane Harman in primaries in 2006 and 2010. She recently helped organize Santa Monica’s beach maintenance workers, who now have benefits.
But here, I think, she went off the rails. Two months after she launched her petition against the pony rides, she emailed Santa Monica city officials screen shots of Angel’s husband’s Facebook page. She sent a photo of the couple holding rifles at their five-acre Fillmore ranch and a photo of Angel and two other women with the caption “My bitches!” There was a screen shot of an anti-Obama, anti-illegal immigration conservative meme. There was also a photo of Angel holding a bottle of vodka on a ski trip.
The posts, Winograd wrote, were “sexist” and “racist.” The vodka showed Angel “boozing it up in the morning.” Though she valued the couple’s right to free speech, Winograd wrote, the posts “make one pause and wonder if it’s in the best interest of Santa Monica to embrace and promote this business.”
That is some ugly stuff.
The Santa Monica City Council voted 4 to 0 to allow Angel’s contract to expire. But not everyone was happy.
“I was troubled by how this has been handled,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown just before the vote. “People in the community need to have dialogue and not make accusations. [But] my heart tells me that, yeah, maybe the time has come when pony rides are one of those things we will remember fondly but don’t do anymore.”
Angel, 35, told me that losing the farmers market contract cost her dearly.
I don’t doubt it. She charged $6 admission, and served between 200 and 300 kids a week. She said she has lost about $80,000, a big chunk of her annual income. She recently sold a pony for $1,000, and had to part with seven goats. Her credit cards are maxed out.
The hardest part of the ordeal, she said, was being vilified for doing work that she loves.
“Marcy didn’t just stand on the corner and say, ‘I don’t like pony rides,’” Angel said. “She called me an animal abuser, a racist, an alcoholic. I certainly have done nothing in my life to deserve this.”
I agree. At what point does truth actually matter?