University police, others sued over circus animal dispute

RENO — Lawyers for the University of Nevada, Reno, say they’ll produce the security videotape animal rights activists claim will prove their First Amendment rights were violated when they were threatened with arrest in 2011 while trying to photograph alleged mistreatment of circus elephants.

UNR lawyer Gary Cardinal told a U.S. magistrate judge in district court in Reno on Tuesday he expects to receive copies next week of the video of the incident outside the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Lawlor Events Center on the school’s campus.

Joseph Cuviello, one of the activists suing Lawlor and campus police, said the tape will show they were on public land and had a constitutional right to be there.

“The videotape is the main evidence. Everything was documented out there,” Cuviello said in a teleconference hookup to the chambers of Magistrate Judge Valerie Cooke.

Cooke encouraged the two sides to try to settle out of court. A trial could begin as early as spring.

Cuviello and co-plaintiff Deniz Bolbol are members of Humanity Through Education, a grassroots animal rights group based in the San Francisco Bay Area which they say has successfully documented numerous instances of animal abuse committed by circuses over the years.

They said in their lawsuit a UNR police officer and Lawlor security chief violated their rights when they were threatened with arrest if they didn’t cease videotaping elephants in a fenced off area before a performance on Oct. 1, 2011.

At all times, they were “peacefully exercising their constitutionally protected First Amendment rights to free speech, press, association, conscience and beliefs, collection information on matters of great public concern in a public forum,” the suit said.

In addition to unspecified damages, they are seeking a court order declaring “the present policy of prohibiting citizens from exercising free speech rights on Lawlor Events Center property violates the Constitution of the United States and prohibiting such restriction in future years, and requiring defendants to undertake training and other prophylactic measures to ensure defendants acts are not repeated in future years.”

The activists originally named as defendants the university as well as Lawlor security chief Mike McClearly and UNR police officer Jon Martinez. But Cooke said the school has been dismissed from the suit because it is a state institution immune from such legal action.

University officials maintain the two were trespassing and that restrictions on their access to the animals were reasonable, in part because a special area on the other side of the arena has been established as a free speech zone.


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