No First Amendment right to attend cockfights, court rules

Monday, September 19, 2011

Individuals have no First Amendment free-assembly or free-association right to attend cockfights, a Connecticut appeals court has ruled. The court reasoned that the state had a rational reason to punish spectators at illegal cockfights.

In February 2009, police in Waterbury, Conn., arrested several individuals around a cockfighting ring. One was Eddie Bonilla, a spectator with more than $900 in cash in his pockets.

Prosecutors charged Bonilla with violating a Connecticut animal-cruelty law, a section of which provided: “Any person who knowingly … acts as judge or spectator at an exhibition of animal fighting for amusement or gain … shall be fined not more than five thousand dollars or imprisoned not more than five years or both.”

Bonilla entered a plea of nolo contendere (no contest), reserving his right to contest his conviction on appeal.  After received a three-year suspended sentence, he challenged the constitutionality of the law, contending that it infringed on his First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly and association. The Connecticut Appellate Court rejected his constitutional arguments in its Sept. 13 decision in State v. Bonilla.

The appeals court first addressed Bonilla’s free-assembly argument, noting that the First Amendment “does not encompass the right to assemble for an unlawful purpose.” Bonilla argued that he was just a spectator who didn’t actively engage in illegal conduct. But the appeals court held that “as a spectator at a cockfight, an individual is engaged in promoting and facilitating the exercise of the unlawful conduct.”

The appeals court then addressed the free-association argument. The opinion said the First Amendment recognizes claims of both intimate and expressive association: intimate association meaning close familial connections that the state cannot invade, and expressive association referring to engagement in expressive activities protected by the First Amendment.

Attending a cockfight involves neither close familial relationships nor expressive activity, the appeals court determined. The spectators were not “members of any organized association” or “taking positions on public questions.”

The court added: “Nor were they engaged in scholarly, or eleemosynary [charitable] pursuits.”

Because the law did not infringe on Bonilla’s First Amendment freedoms, the law is constitutional as long as it serves a rational purpose, the appeals court said. The opinion concluded that the law was “rationally related to the state’s objective of eliminating animal cruelty and therefore does not violate the defendant’s constitutional right of the freedom of assembly and freedom of association.”

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