Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Monday, June 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Police Didn’t Stifle Circus Protest at Verizon Center

WASHINGTON (CN) - Animal rights activists who were told to move while protesting a circus do not have a free-speech case, a federal judge ruled.

Each year for the past three years, Defending Animals Rights Today and Tomorrow (DARTT) goes to the circus to educate the public about animal cruelty that allegedly occurs outside the big tent.

While protesting the March 2011 appearance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Verizon Center, metro police directed the activists to move several feet away from the arena's doors.

They filed suit against Washington Sports and Entertainment and the District of Columbia, alleging that the orders violated the First Amendment since it allegedly kept them from putting fliers in the hands of as many circus-goers as possible.

The defendants countered that their instructions to protesters were reasonable because of safety concerns for more than 9,000 circus patrons.

A federal judge refused to issue an injunction in May, since both the circus and protesters had left the Verizon Center. The defendants next moved to dismiss the complaint, leading each side to present the court with unedited video surveillance and testimony.

U.S. Judge Amy Berman Jackson sided against the protesters on Oct. 20

DARTT protestors were on public property, but the police took "narrowly tailored" action in telling them to move since pedestrian safety is a significant government interest.

Video footage furthermore shows that, even from the protesters' new location, they "were smack in the middle of pedestrian traffic."

"The fact is that DARTT's members were not relegated to some distant location at the edge of the action, trying to flag down members of the crowd after they had already dispersed; they were standing in a sea of pedestrians even at their new location," Jackson wrote.

She was similarly not convinced that a constitutional violation arose if the police action kept activists from putting as many fliers into as many hands as possible.

"Although leafleting is a pure form of protected speech that occupies a valued place in American history, plaintiff does not have an unlimited constitutional right to leaflet anywhere or at any time it decides to do so," Jackson wrote. "Plaintiff's members did not necessarily have a right to leaflet at the most advantageous spot or even a 'more' advantageous spot than at the edge of overhang."

Another factor weighing against the protesters was the fact that they had other ways to reach circus patrons besides leafleting.

"Most important, ... they successfully communicated their message audibly with a megaphone and visually with signs and a giant, graphic video projection on the side of the building," Jackson wrote.

The 20-page order dismisses DARTT's case with prejudice.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.