Pet Store Can’t Silence Activists through Defamation Lawsuit, ACLU tells Court

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
March 25, 2014 12:00 am

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DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has asked an Oakland County judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by a local pet store against a group of animal welfare activists who protest and advocate against the commercial breeding of puppies and the sale of such puppies by for-profit pet stores. The ACLU alleges that the lawsuit is designed specifically to suppress the speech of the law abiding activists, calling it a SLAPP suit, or strategic lawsuit against public participation.

“Lawsuits cannot be used as a tool to thwart the free speech rights of protesters who contribute to a debate on important social and political issues,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan deputy director. “After all, the First Amendment gives us all the most powerful tool to address those with whom we disagree: our own voice in the debate.”

Puppy Mill Awareness of Southeast Michigan (PMA) is a grassroots community group whose mission is to raise public awareness about the commercial puppy-breeding industry and its effects on the health and welfare of dogs and the people who purchase those dogs. As part of its advocacy, PMA holds demonstrations outside pet stores that sell commercially bred puppies, encouraging members of the public to adopt rescued pets rather than purchase puppies from a store.

Since 2011, PMA has picketed and leafleted outside of Woof Woof Puppies & Boutique’s location in Southfield and a soon-to-be-opened location in Walled Lake. In addition, they have lobbied local officials and spoken publicly about their concerns regarding Woof Woof’s practices.

Earlier this year, Woof Woof met PMA’s activism with a “kitchen sink” of defective legal claims, including – defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, cyberstalking and harassment, and civil conspiracy. Upon filing the lawsuit, Woof Woof also asked a judge to order PMA members not to use the internet or picket in front of the business, which the court properly denied.

“This lawsuit has all the markings of a classic SLAPP suit. The pet store and its owner want to sell puppies without having to answer questions about the source of the puppies, whether the breeders are licensed, and whether the puppies are too young, too small, or too vulnerable to be sold. Plaintiffs have thrown everything at the wall in the hopes that something will stick,” said Susan Kornfield, ACLU of Michigan cooperating attorney with Bodman PLC. “It’s clear that the sole purpose of this lawsuit is to shut down debate before it starts through the threat of expensive litigation. Our clients will not be intimidated into silence and look forward to vigorous public debate on this important social issue.”

The ACLU of Michigan’s motion asks the court to dismiss all claims against PMA and its members because the topic of their speech, commercial puppy breeding, is an issue of significant public concern and therefore entitled to the highest level of First Amendment protection.

According to the ACLU of Michigan’s motion, “Defendants do not fear a legal process that will shine light on the horrendous conditions of puppy mills in Michigan. At its core, however, this is a dispute about ideas, and this Court cannot serve as the arbiter of ideas or the referee of ethical debate.”

In addition to Korobkin and Kornfield, PMA is represented by Jonathan A. Young of Bodman PLC and Kary L. Moss and Michael J. Steinberg of the ACLU of Michigan.

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