Six days into her 10-day jail sentence, Megan Lewis had found a novel way to win friends behind bars. A vegan who eats no animal products, the 24-year-old animal-rights protester gained some popularity among her cell mates at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center because she was willing to trade the meat and eggs in her meals for fruit.
Even in jail, Lewis stayed true to her cause, but she wonders whether she'll be able to do the same now that she's out. As part of her sentence for a misdemeanor charge stemming from a 1998 anti-fur protest at the downtown Neiman Marcus, a judge has forbidden Lewis from participating in any animal-rights protest for two years.
That condition has earned Lewis a cadre of supporters, among them the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who think the judge may have went too far and violated her First Amendment rights.
On November 27, 1998, Lewis was one of about 80 protesters who gathered outside the retail chain's flagship store. When Lewis and two others sat in front of the store's entrance chanting, the three were arrested and charged with a Class B misdemeanor for blocking a passageway. After a jury found her guilty, Dallas County Criminal Judge Ralph Taite fined Lewis $500, sentenced her to 10 days in jail, 24 hours community service and ordered her to attend an eight-hour "life skills" course followed by 24 months probation. (A Class B misdemeanor is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and up to a $2,000 fine.)
"You will note that the judge has ordered that I 'may not be involved in any animal rights protest,'" Lewis said in a written statement issued at a news conference held outside the jail before she began serving her time on August 9. "This could include such legal activities as writing a letter, signing a petition or holding a picket sign in an approved protest area. This is a flagrant and open violation of the Constitution of the United States by a Dallas County criminal court. I should not be forced to forfeit my rights of free speech under the United States Constitution."
Lewis appealed the conviction to the 5th District Court of Appeals, but failed. The appeals court ruled that a trial judge can impose any reasonable condition "to protect or restore a community, protect or restore the victim or punish, rehabilitate or reform the defendant," says Steve Tokoly, felony trial bureau chief at the district attorney's office. "A probation condition is not invalid because it affects the probationer's ability to exercise constitutionally protected rights."
Lewis' attorney Donald Feare doesn't buy that argument.
"If you consider the total cessation of a right to be reasonable, how far is it until you can say a person can't leave their house for two years?" Feare asks. "Right now, her being involved in any shape or form violates the order. They could have said, 'You may not be involved in a protest wherein you are violating the law,' but now it's in the eye of the beholder...they weren't descriptive enough."
Although unable to comment directly on Lewis' case, Judge Taite defends his ruling generally. "As a judge, one needs to think, 'What are the things to be done to keep the person from committing the same offense?'...It is the judge that allows that person back out on the street and up to the judge to make sure the behavior does not continue."
The punishment is far from the maximum, and the judge had to consider that Lewis was sentenced a year earlier for a similar offense that resulted in her spending a day in jail.
"There is no evil at work here," says Dallas ACLU attorney Michael Linz, who advised Lewis. (The ACLU never directly participated in Lewis' defense.) "They're not trying to hurt her; they're actually trying to help her. The judge is thinking, 'How can I stop her from doing this? How can I get her to write letters to her congressman...anything but block another doorway?' It's just that there was a lack of forethought."
In addition to contesting the probation order, Lewis argued on appeal that the state's entire case was flawed. "If an offense occurs during the exercise of free speech the state must give the specific order to move," Feare says. He contends that instead of a more specific "get away from the door" or "move along," the arresting officer merely gave the order to "stop" to Lewis and her friends.
Though her stay in jail was brief and her crime minor, Lewis got a celebrity send-off when she reported to Lew Sterrett. About 40 people, state Representatives Harryette Ehrhardt and Lon Burnam among them, showed up.
After the representatives and lawyers had spoken, Lewis read a statement to the semicircle of press, politicians and supporters around her. "I will submit myself for incarceration," she said.
"Will this affect your activism?" she was asked.
"At this point it is," she said. "I hope in the future it won't."
In a jailhouse interview six days later (she was released early this week), Lewis said she hadn't been doing much. After going through the doors into Lew Sterrett, being strip-searched and issued a cup, some soap and a spoon, her time was occupied with soap operas and talk shows, although the words from the television couldn't be heard above the noise of the holding cell. There were some Dean Koontz books floating around, and she read some of those. Because she is a vegan, choosing not to eat, drink or use anything animal or animal byproduct, she ate little of the food served and lost 5 pounds.
Lewis shared her room with about 20 other women, and unlike them she received visitors every day. She sympathizes with many of them. Their problems seem much worse than hers, even though she considers her sentence "way overboard for what I have done."
"I already figured the correctional system was pretty bad, but this put a face on it," she said. "Still, though, the most disturbing thing to me is the First Amendment violations."
Lewis' beliefs regarding animal rights began when her older sister brought home a flier about the meat and dairy industry from a local concert. Soon after, her immediate family became vegetarian, then eventually vegan. She joined an animal-rights group and eventually helped form her own called T.E.A.R. for the Texas Establishment for Animal Rights. An honor student at the University of Texas at Dallas, she is studying to become a lawyer.
"I'd like to help animal rights and environmental activists out," she says. "Animal rights has been my passion and my main focus, but I'm starting to branch out into other issues."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.