Funeral-protest ruling aids animal-rights activists

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Snyder v. Phelps protecting the free-speech rights of funeral protesters has also helped two animal-rights activists in Minnesota. Relying on the high court’s decision, a state appeals court has reversed the disorderly conduct convictions of two men who loudly chanted outside a fur store in downtown Minneapolis.

Isaac Siegel Peter and Michael Christopher Lawson conducted an animal-rights protest outside Ribnick Fur store — a place they had previously protested many times without arrest. The two chanted loudly and decried the killing of animals. Store owner William Ribnick contended that the men had said they knew where he and his mother lived and knew the license plate of his car. However, Ribnick conceded that the men did not threaten him or any customers or cause any physical damage.

The police arrested Peter and Lawson for disorderly conduct after individuals across the street claimed the men were harassing customers. A jury found both men guilty of disorderly conduct.

On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed that verdict in its May 3 opinion in State v. Peter. Citing Snyder v. Phelps, the Minnesota court found that Peter and Lawson were engaged in political protest on matters of public concern. Furthermore, the appeals court cited several Minnesota cases for the proposition that disorderly conduct convictions could stand only if the speakers had engaged in fighting words — a recognized category of unprotected speech that likely leads to retaliatory violence.

“No reasonable jury could have found that any of [Peter’s and Lawson’s] statements constituted fighting words as that phrase has been defined,” the appeals court wrote, emphasizing the political nature of their protest and that their conduct was “inextricably intertwined with their protected speech.”

The appeals court also relied on the fact that the two men did not use any sound-amplification devices. “Because no jury could reasonably conclude that appellants were guilty of violating the disorderly conduct ordinance, we conclude that the evidence is insufficient to sustain appellants’ convictions, and we reverse,” the court said.

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