Upon learning of the incident and overall tone of the protest, Amy McWethy responded, "Basically what we owe our customers is that this doesn't happen again in this manner and that we try work with the venue and the local authorities to ensure that our customers - whether they take a pamphlet or flier is of their own choice - that someone is not shouting at them from a bullhorn or trying to persuade them in any way to make them feel like a bad parent."
Asked how that might be accomplished, McWethy replied, "It depends on what the city and the local authorities will allow. Sometimes it is creating a free speech zone."
In other words, she explained, "You are free to protest but you've got to do it over in this area and that is common. We'll try to figure out the best way to make sure that the patrons have the best experience while protesters are able to have their free speech."
This week, attorney Bennet Zurofsky, working on behalf of the ACLU-NJ, represented a Ringling protester. Nicholas Botti was arrested in March 2010 for protesting on a public sidewalk outside of the confines of a designated "protest zone." The charges were later dismissed and a settlement was reached yesterday.
According to an ACLU press release,
"Botti and seven other animal welfare advocates distributed leaflets opposing the treatment of animals by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. When they arrived at the center, police corralled them into a designated "protest zone" far from the arena, in an area that saw significantly less pedestrian traffic than the front of the center."
The complaint states that Botti asked the officer why he could not engage in protected free speech activity on a public street, to which the officer replied, "Because they don't want you here." Botti said he was never told who "they" were.
Asked whether an incident like the clash at the Philadelphia protest could lead to an agreement between Ringling and the City to establish a "free speech zone" for future visits, Mr. Zurofsky replied,
"The first amendment obligates the police to protect the protesters as long as they're acting lawfully. The patron who got out of the car was the one who was probably out of line," he said.
In terms of public safety in the future, he pointed out that laws already exist prohibiting assault and that the "obligation is to protect free speech."
It remains to be seen what long-term effect these protests will have on Ringling Bros. Circus. According to Ringling more than 85,000 people attended "The Greatest Show on Earth" in Philadelphia last week and "saw for themselves that our animals are healthy and thriving in our care."
is certain is that Ringling's critics in their commitment to the
welfare of the animals will continue to exercise their first
amendment rights in their campaign.
Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey fans and critics alike can find a "Fully Charged" event at the official Ringling tour schedule.