I told this story over at HardballTalk today, but it’s the kind of thing I usually put here, so why not put it here where it won’t get buried?
The last stop in my legal career was at the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. One of my jobs there was to defend lawsuits brought against the state arising out of stuff that went down on the Statehouse grounds. Some of it was slip-and-fall cases, but the vast majority of the work involved helping the people who managed the Statehouse property approve (or not approve) petitions for people who wanted to march or protest.
Normally it was easy: they’d call, asking if they can keep some group off the capitol steps and I’d say “Nope, sorry. Gotta let ‘em march.” The First Amendment is so troublesome that way. But heck, several years earlier the KKK got to rally there, and if you can’t keep them out, you can’t keep anyone out. Besides, the guy who ran that operation was a cranky old guy who didn’t like anyone protesting, so it was a lot of fun to tell him just how little say over the matter he had.
But then, in the summer of 2009, came PETA. Who, though I disagree with their stance on the tastiness of animals, their suitability for my barbecue and the comfort of their skin when put on my comfortable Eames lounge chair, I do respect in an odd fashion. They’ve got moxy and chutzpah and, though they’re occasionally (frequently) insane, they usually seem to have a good sense of humor about themselves. Which is essential when you’re wrong so often. Live and let live, I say (note: this motto may not apply to cattle, pigs, chickens and other things that I may want for dinner this evening).
That summer PETA wanted to stage a massive protest on the Statehouse lawn in which they would (a) place approximately 1000 buckets full of pig poop in neat rows; (b) place giant industrial-sized fans all around them in order to blow the stink all over downtown Columbus; © bring in giant amplifiers with which to project the sounds of pigs being slaughtered to a mutliple-block radius; and (d) erect giant video screens on which the horrors of factory farming would be displayed.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the guy who ran the Statehouse called me, somewhat upset over all of this. And while I normally would just say “First Amendment, forget it” and go back to my clandestine baseball blogging, I felt that I needed to dig into this one a bit more. So I did. And I learned that PETA had just recently tried to do the same protest in Washington and maybe in a few other states besides Ohio, but were denied everywhere else. Indeed, it was my assumption – based on the fact that they hadn’t yet started suing everyone over it – that the protest was never really going to happen and that they just wanted the headlines that the state’s rejection of the application would provide. Smart!
The whole thing fascinated me, really, so I decided that rather than simply send a letter saying no, I’d try to find a legitimate yet innocuous basis for denying their application, putting the ball back in their court rather than letting them use my state as an example of intolerance and authoritarianism for their next press release.
After an afternoon of research with a summer law clerk – who herself happened to be a vegan and former PETA member and who had quit the organization because this kind of nonsense bugged the heck out of her – we found some obscure 19th century law that dealt with the storing of offal within the city limits. We didn’t think that offal and pig poop were the same thing, but we figured it would be fun to make the PETA lawyers research that one and explain it in their letter objecting to our decision or in the lawsuit if it came to that. If they want to fight over the true nature of poop, by God, I’d fight that fight.
We sent the letter denying their right to rally on the Statehouse lawn. I spent another four months at the AG’s office before coming to NBC full time. Never heard back from them, so even if it was just a phantom protest/publicity stunt, I’m still claiming that I’m 1-0 all-time vs. PETA.
Gosh, remembering that has me in a really good mood now. I think this evening I’m going to eat a really bloody steak in celebration.