Nikki Benoit leafleting without incident at Glendale Community College in California.

Leafleting has long been a standard form of activism in the animal rights movement. Indeed, it’s considered so effective that at least one nonprofit — Vegan Outreach — has been built around the premise that reaching out to the public, especially college students, with free information on the plight of animals used for food and encouraging people to go vegan is an easy and generally non-confrontational model of speaking up for animals. We’re not terribly surprised to hear when an activist is arrested at a demonstration, but leafleters have always enjoyed a lower profile, offering pamphlets and other literature to passersby; in fact, the Vegan Outreach site touts, “None of us have ever been arrested.”

Looks like they’ll have to update that page. This week, activist Nikki Benoit of Vegan Outreach was arrested as she was handing out leaflets at Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa, California. “Numerous attorneys have reiterated that we have a constitutional right to hand out free literature — drama-free — and anywhere, really, especially in California, which has very inclusive free speech rights,” says Benoit, adding that the campus security officer “manhandled me, even while I was handcuffed.”

Although this arrest is rare, it is not unheard of, and the law supports the rights of activists leafleting on public college campuses. In fact, in the case of Jones v. the Board of Regents of the University of Arizona (1970), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that non-students not only have the right to exercise free speech on campuses, but that colleges and universities are obliged to provide these individuals with police protection to ensure their rights are not violated. Not that campuses always obey the court. In 2008, for example, an employee with Jews for Jesus was arrested for handing out leaflets at San Francisco City College. The employee successfully sued the college in 2009, with the court ruling they had violated his freedom of speech.

A lawsuit is also what Benoit’s lawyer has in mind. “I will first get the criminal charge dismissed, and then we will sue the police for violation of her civil rights,” says attorney Bryan Pease. “Nikki was well within her constitutional rights, and the crime she was charged with requires interfering with the peaceful conduct of activities on the campus. Passing out leaflets does not meet that test and is quintessential free speech.”

The larger question for activists, though, is should they be worried about leafleting? Benoit was making a stand at OCC; she was tired of being told by faculty and campus police at some colleges that she had to sign in before leafleting, limit her leafleting to a designated “free-speech zone” or be restricted to a table, where students could approach her. But that doesn’t mean activists need to risk arrest. According to the Legal Questions about Leafleting page on the Vegan Outreach site, if you have a problem with campus security, stay calm and polite. You can either stop leafleting immediately and leave, or you can remind authorities that you have a constitutional right to distribute literature. Pease cautions that “the police may make up a charge like they did in Nikki’s case,” but authorities “should recognize there is no chargeable offense for handing out leaflets in a public forum.”

Benoit says she’s been standing up to campus bullies for some time now and that police are usually unable to cite her and other activists who refuse to give up their constitutional rights. “At Southwestern College in Chula Vista a couple weeks ago, the security guard was writing my citation and learned there was nothing to cite me with,” she says.

Whenever I consider the power of leafleting, I am reminded of Nathan Runkle, who not only went vegan but later founded Mercy For Animals (MFA) — an organization known for exposing the suffering of animals in factory farms — because he was inspired by a piece of animal rights literature someone had given him when he was 11 years old. For additional information on leafleting, check out this video from MFA.

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