NEWARK, N.J. — As the circus comes to town this week, free speech comes right behind.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and the City of Newark have reached a settlement that vindicates the rights of animal welfare activist Nicholas Botti, who was arrested nearly a year ago, while protesting the treatment of animals by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Botti was standing on a public sidewalk outside of the Prudential Center when he was arrested on March 7, 2010 – the last time the circus was in town.
“Most people don’t know how cruelly the animals are treated, and if people have the right to attend the circus, we should have the right to oppose it,” said Botti. “Looking back, it was futile to tell the police we weren’t breaking any laws, but if my experience means the police don't infringe on the rights of other people for speaking their minds, then it is a victory for both civil rights and animal rights.”
On the day of Botti’s arrest, police officers corralled a group of 7 animal-welfare advocates from the sidewalk in front of the Prudential Center to a distant “protest zone,” where sparse foot traffic exposed fewer people to their signs and literature.
As part of the agreement, the City of Newark will train all police officers and city employees responsible for special event permits in Newark’s free-speech policies every six months. The city has an ordinance that requires a permit for free speech activities only when the number of people reaches 50.
“Any policy can only be as good as its enforcement,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Over the years we’ve helped Newark build strong free speech policies, and with new emphasis on teaching those policies, they’ll be even stronger.”
The incident last year unfolded when Botti and another activist moved from the fairly isolated “protest zone” to the intersection of Mulberry Street and Edison Place, diagonally across from the arena, where their signs could be seen more readily. Even though neither Botti nor his sign — which read “This is Ringling Baby Elephant Training” next to an image of a prodded elephant — blocked traffic, police arrested him on charges of obstructing the sidewalk and failing to move when ordered by police.
The city requires a permit only when demonstrations exceed 50 participants — much greater than the number of advocates who joined Botti last year.
“We’re gratified that Newark not only recognized the importance of enforcing its free speech ordinances, but responded quickly to institute it,” said Bennet Zurofsky, the attorney who represented Botti for the ACLU-NJ.