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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.
With the number of land animals raised and slaughtered for food worldwide every year now exceeding 50 billion (and still growing), there’s never been a more critical time to speak out for the voiceless. Animal activists around the globe work tirelessly to raise awareness, of course, but events may reach a peak on or around October 2 – World Farm Animals Day. Marking the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, an outspoken advocate of compassion for animals, World Farm Animals Day mobilizes activists in all 50 U.S. states and two dozen other countries. Participants include animal advocacy groups and individual activists; anyone who cares about animals is encouraged to join this global outcry against cruelty. And it’s not too early to begin planning for it.
World Farm Animals Day observances traditionally include vigils, marches, leafleting, tabling and exhibiting. More dramatic events include die-ins, cage-ins and video rigs. Activists encourage governors and mayors to issue special proclamations denouncing cruelty to farmed animals.
Among the activities to take place in North America will be Farm Sanctuary’s annual Walk for Farm Animals. This is actually a series of walking events held throughout Canada and the U.S. in September and October. As Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary president and co-founder, explains, “The Walk for Farm Animals is a critical tool that provides an opportunity for animal advocates to demonstrate their support for animal protection, educate the public about why this is important issue and help raise the funds necessary to continue Farm Sanctuary’s distinctive work to rescue farm animals from abuse, and advocate for farm animal protection across the country through legislative, legal and corporate campaign efforts.”
National Walk participants can register at www.walkforfarmanimals.org, or call 607-583-2225 ext. 229.
Other ways to observe World Farm Animals Day include:
Leafleting: Leafleting is a simple activity, as it requires no permits, no equipment and little planning. Make sure to make the most of your efforts by hitting high-traffic areas like colleges and city streets at the busiest times. Lunch hour and quitting time are optimal times. Request literature from Vegan Outreach or the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM).
Information Tables/Stalls: A simple and easy way to get the message out. Information tables require relatively little planning and allow activists to engage the public in meaningful, one-on-one dialogues. Pick a popular location and busy time of day, get a permit (if necessary), then show up for a few hours with a large table, display materials and handouts. FARM will provide the materials you need; simply register online or call 888-FARM-USA to get your free Action Guide and Event Pack.
Vigils & Memorial Services: Vigils and memorial services are somber events that focus attention on the tragedy of factory farming. They are a time to remember the losses suffered by each of the 50 billion individual land animals murdered by agribusiness each year. These events can be as elaborate as funeral processions or as straightforward as candlelight vigils. Props such as candles, black ribbons, somber music and funeral attire can create a very dramatic effect. Activists can also conduct a fast to increase the media appeal of the event and to bring attention to the millions of people who go hungry as grains are fed to livestock instead.
Video Rigs: Playing a video to expose standard farming and slaughter practices is a sure way to simultaneously grab attention and create awareness.
Exhibits: Exhibits are basically the unstaffed version of an information table or stall. The typical duration of an exhibit ranges from one week to one month. Libraries and student unions are popular locations for exhibits, which tend to be more visual than information tables. Display materials, including books, are usually under protective glass cover, while handouts are available to passersby. FARM can provide the materials you need.
Cage-ins: An excellent way to bring attention to the plight of farmed animals. They are highly effective in conjunction with videos and can attract a media attention.
Protests: A protest is a great way to express outrage toward an establishment’s treatment or policies regarding animals. It can also generate a lot of negative publicity for your target, if well-thought-out. If you are working on a campaign in your area, consider incorporating it into World Farm Animals Day by staging a protest on or around Gandhi’s birthday. Making your campaign part of an international day of action makes it much more newsworthy. When planning your protest, be sure to read up on local ordinances regarding the size, location, timing, and noise levels of protests. Depending on local laws, you may need one or more permits. And don’t forget: stay on public property!
KFC Demo: Kentucky Fried Cruelty demonstrations are a great way to support both World Farm Animals Day and the Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign spearheaded by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
Die-Ins: A visually powerful and symbolic form of protest, die-ins have traditionally been used to protest nuclear proliferation and war. World Farm Animals Day die-ins take a stand for animals (whose suffering is invisible and denied). The idea is for a group of activists dressed in black to lie motionless for a set amount of time (usually about 20 to 30 minutes).
Launched in 1983, World Farm Animals Day is an international campaign of FARM (Farm Animal Rights Movement), a non-profit public interest organization based just outside of Washington, D.C. FARM works with local volunteers hosting activities, serving as a resource by providing information, guidance, materials, media outreach, and an online Events Directory.