April Fool: Slapping Down the SLAPP

On April Fool’s Day morning in 2014, Progress for Science activists made our way to a Westwood neighborhood near UCLA in order to stand outside holding signs and handing out leaflets to a few passersby, mostly parents and nannies walking their little ones to a nearby school. We were there to show our opposition to the cruel, useless experiments being done on animals and to educate folks about the type of research that their neighbor, a UCLA vivisector, is doing with our tax money.

The person we were spreading the message about was Edythe London, a professor who has for decades been carrying out forced addictions on rats and monkeys, studying the effects of substances of abuse such as drugs and tobacco on their brain functions. In one study, which wound up being an embarrassment for UCLA, London was unethically funded by the tobacco giant Phillip Morris.

These activities have long made London a lightning rod for protesters in the LA area. With its formation in 2012, P4S has taken over most of the on-the-ground Edythe London campaign, using legal protest strategies such as candlelight vigils, outreach and petition drives and non-targeted picketing to maintain a public spotlight on her misuse of tax payer monies and to discourage others from following in her path.

On the particular day in question, activists arrived at 7:15 am, holding signs and leafleting silently—there was no chanting at this outreach. The activists were unaware of London’s routine or whereabouts and so were surprised when, around 7:45am, Loblogpic2ndon and husband Abe Wagner, appearing to be returning home from a walk, approached them with their two breeder-bought large grey poodles. As activists stood aside to let them walk by, London suddenly bolted past, surprising her dog who then lunged forward and, with her leash, pulled her against a parked vehicle. London quickly recovered but not before her husband started yelling at activists. He also called out to their 24-hour security guard who was posted in front of their house, saying that activists had intentionally scared the dog. A UCLA patrol car appeared shortly after. The officer talked to Edythe and Abe, talked to us and took a look at our photos and reviewed the security guard’s video. Determining activists had done nothing wrong, the officer then left. Fortuitously for Progress, the security guard caught the entire event on film. Though it took over a year to get the video released, this would be the evidence that proved P4S’ version of the day’s events were accurate.

Dissatisfied with the officer having done nothing, London filed a petition for a restraining order against three of our group, one an actual organizer with P4S and the other two seemly picked at random from our ensemble that day. Her petition told a story very different from the events of that day. This was a story she retold to courts several times despite myriad inaccuracies, which were uncovered with the eventual release of the security guard’s video.

A couple weeks later on April 16 the P4S trio was in a courtroom filled with mothers, wives and girlfriends─victims of the abusive men in their lives, women who have real, potentially life-threatening worries who genuinely need the protection of the law. When our case came before the judge she was somewhat befuddled as to why she was seeing this presented in her courtroom and taking up time on her packed schedule. To the question “Have these people ever threatened you?” London could only answer in the negative to the exasperated judge who ruled that London had no case and that the charges were unfounded.

The lawsuit was clearly designed as a SLAPP – a strategic lawsuit against public participation. On behalf of P4S, one of the organizers, represented by Colleen Flynn, immediately filed an anti-SLAPP motion against London, seeking recovery of legal fees if a SLAPP is used to stifle 1st amendment speech. Here’s where the story gets convoluted.

The judge initially denied the SLAPP motion and fined the activist for filing it. The activist took the case on appeal and filed a public records request with the UCLA Police Department to see if Edythe London had proviblogpic3ded the police with her security guard’s video of the encounter. It turns out that she had, and the video proved the activists’ story was right. No one, as London had claimed, threatened her, no one surrounded her, no one had hid in the bushes waiting to pop out at her: she had simply scared her own dog with her erratic actions, causing him/her to bolt and her to fall into the parked vehicle.

Thankfully, the appeals court sent the case back down to be reconsidered. After obtaining a new judge, the activists submitted the video proving that Edythe’s version of the story was fabricated and the activists’ version was accurate all along.

Activists prevailed—the judge ruled that “London was not completely candid when she described the April incident” and “the facts she described … are not consistent with the video of the incident.” London was ordered to pay more than $10,500 to the activist’s legal fees.  In the end, a settlement was reached in which London paid $9,600 in legal fees to our legal counsel in the case and $3,500 from the initial ruling was released back to the activist.

The importance of this case and the result we obtained is not to be defined by the monetary amount awarded–a dollar value can’t be placed on our First Amendment right to speak out against injustice and oppression. What is of value is that an attempt to stifle free speech has itself been stifled. It is often left to concerned citizens to take to our city streets and sidewalks─often when all other forums have been blocked or have proved inadequate to the task of making wrongs right─in order to voice our dissent when the powers who claim to represent the people fail to do so or seem only to listen to moneyed interests. Those same interests fight back and often hard, forcing advocates for justice and change to waste thousands of dollars defending constitutionally protected speech. This time we won but it is not always so. Progress for Science is still fighting in Minnesota against the machinations of another vivisector and No New Animal Lab is also struggling against attempts to silence their voices. These cases are among many around the country where activists of all stripes─in our movement and others as well─are being harassed and penalized for legal protest. That being the reality, our work as advocates for animals as well as for others of the oppressed does not stop at chanting and leafleting on the streets; it extends into the court rooms where it is up to us to halt the onslaught on our freedoms, to stop our causes from being gagged, to make sure our streets do not go silent.