Animal rights group sues state fair over booth

Aug 31, 2012

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been busy making headlines and wreaking havoc on state fairs the last couple of months. The group has successfully made its way into the Colorado, Kansas and Iowa state fairs, with what has been described as a graphic documentary titled “Glass Walls.”

The video, narrated by Paul Mc- Cartney, is accompanied by a sign that mocks the 4-H program, complete with a green 4-leaf clover, and PETA’s twist on the 4-H message. PETA’s four H’s stand for “Hell for animals,” “Heart attack– inducing,” “Hazard to the environment,” and “Hypocritical for teaching kids to care about only certain animals and to disrespect others.”

Last week, the group filed a lawsuit against the Kansas State Fair Board, and the state and the fair’s general manager, claiming violation of free speech rights. The group also filed a motion asking the court to block the restrictions imposed on PETA’s booth for this year’s fair, which starts Sept. 7.

The American Civil Liberties Union is representing PETA for free along with Kansas City, MO, law firm Copilevitz & Canter. The hearing is expected to begin this week.

Kansas fair organizers say the restrictions still allow PETA to have a booth, and to show the graphic images, but attendees who choose to view them will do so behind partitions, shielding the images from the general public.

Jeff Wagaman, deputy chief of staff for the state attorney general’s office, said in a statement that the state is confident the fair board’s actions are legal.

“The Attorney General’s Office will zealously defend the State Fair Board in this matter,” Wagaman said.

PETA attorney Jeff Kerr told reporters the group tried to get fair officials to voluntarily remove the restrictions, but when they did not succeed, they were forced to sue.

“We are always going to aggressively defend our rights to speak up for animals who have no voice,” Kerr said. “So whether it is this fair, or anywhere else, we are going to fight for the right to show our video and expose the cruelty of the meat industry. Most governments have been introduced to the First Amendment and wouldn’t engage in this kind of conduct and we are hopeful that the Kansas State Fair will see the error of its ways.”

PETA ran into a snag at the Iowa State Fair, with their booth disappearing temporarily after a dispute over the language in the video.

“The scene that led to the booth’s dismissal spotlights a worker on a turkey farm who unsuccessfully attempts to break the neck of a struggling bird,” PETA said in a press release. “He exclaims, ‘Sometimes they’re (expletive) hard [to kill].’” Lori Chappell, the fair’s marketing director, said that PETA was invited back on the condition that the subtitles in the video be removed. The audio expletives remained.

Chappell said that the video initially was noticed by concession and exhibits staff. The fair would have allowed the booth to remain without the video, or more specifically the subtitles.

PETA “chose to tear down,” Chappell said. Such four letter words are not allowed in fair exhibits “from the family-friendly perspective.”

“We just don’t want to be offensive to our fairgoers,” she said.

“We refused to censor our footage, because people deserve to know the ugly side of the agriculture industry,” PETA campaigner Matt Bruce said.

PETA also successfully made its way into the Colorado State Fair. “We’re the only vendor at the fair not selling anything. Instead, we’re just trying to educate the public about a hidden side of agriculture, which is of increasing concern to the nation,” says PETA Senior Vice President Dan Mathews. “We’re not peddling cotton candy or corn dogs, just food for thought, and we expect to reach a lot of people, especially teens.”

Colorado State Fair’s Facebook page received a torrent of angry messages. State fair official’s response, “The Colorado State Fair maintains our belief that Colorado’s farmers and ranchers are the cornerstone of our great state. As a government agency, we must uphold free speech and be unbiased when allowing the community to purchase booth space. The Colorado State Fair fully supports the agricultural community and encourages all fairgoers to appreciate the many ways farm and ranch families contribute to our lives. We remain committed to our mission of supporting youth and agriculture and hope fairgoers take full advantage of the numerous ways they can learn about agriculture throughout the fairgrounds.”

But the fair’s booth requirement rules do allow for restrictions and even refusal of a display deemed offensive.

From their rule book: “The Colorado State Fair recognizes that the Fair is a proper forum for the free exchange of ideas necessary to free society, but RESERVES THE RIGHT to regulate all activities and Exhibitors on the fairgrounds with regard to time, manner, and place in pursuance of its valid interest in maintaining peace, order and protection of the general public.”

The paper work also adds, “The Fair RESERVES THE RIGHT to prohibit or restrict any exhibitor or any part thereof which, in the sole judgment of the Fair, detracts from the character of the Exhibitor of which may be objectionable or offensive to neighboring Exhibitors or the public.”

PETA’s booth has been rejected at the State Fair of Texas because of concerns over family-friendliness and the McCartney video. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor