Fur flies

A series of lawsuits against anti-fur protesters -- the latest naming John Paul Goodwin and his Dallas-based organization as defendants -- appears to be opening a new front in the conflict between retailers and activists, who are facing some of the same legal weapons developed and used over the years against anti-abortion demonstrators.

Last week, Macy's East -- which represents the chain's stores east of the Mississippi River -- filed suit against the Dallas-based Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade and the Norfolk, Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The suit alleges that protests at the company's stores in Massachusetts intimidate customers and prevent people from doing lawful business with the stores.

"I don't think anything that occurred was illegal or over-the-top. I think they're just wanting to stop speech directed against their fur policy. That strikes at the heart of the First Amendment," says Goodwin, the 26-year-old executive director of the Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade, which has chapters across the United States and two in Europe. "For them to say that legal mass picketing is disruptive is to me a sign of complete desperation."

Macy's East, which has its headquarters in New York, and the Boston lawyer who prepared the suit declined to return repeated calls for comment. Goodwin said earlier this week that the company has indicated it plans to drop the suit. The Macy's store in Dallas is part of the Macy's West unit, with headquarters in San Francisco, which closed its fur departments two years ago, a spokesman says.

The store's suit alleges that demonstrators have in the past several months trespassed on Macy's property, entered stores and blocked entrances, passed out "propaganda and shouted on bullhorns to encourage customers to cease doing business with Macy's because of Macy's alleged involvement in the fur trade."

It seeks an injunction barring more than three pickets from gathering within 100 feet of the stores.

According to an affidavit filed by Macy's East's director of security, protesters in the Boston area this winter have burned a mock Macy's credit card, stuffed anti-fur literature into the pockets of coats, picketed within 10 feet of store entrances, and entered stores with bullhorns and signs. Eleven protesters were arrested on December 5 when, according to a police report, they entered a Macy's store and sat in the entrances. Photos entered as evidence in the suit show a small group of protesters on a sidewalk, carrying signs with slogans such as "Boycott Macy's. Ban the Fur Trade." A sample of the groups' anti-fur "propaganda" found in coat pockets reads: "There's No Excuse. Fur Hurts." It goes on to explain the suffering of trapped animals and how ranch-raised animals spend their short lives in tiny cages before being killed by electrocution, gassings, or neck-breaking.

"If you can burn a flag, you can certainly burn a Macy's credit card in effigy," says Goodwin, speaking in his North Dallas apartment, where he coordinates the work of the semiautonomous coalition chapters and serves as the organization's national spokesman and publicist.

Goodwin calls the suit the latest attempt to "tie us down with legal matters" and strain the anti-fur movement with the time and expense of litigation.

A furrier filed suit last year against a Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade chapter in Philadelphia accusing the group of violating the federal anti-racketeering law, known as RICO, which was enacted in 1970 as a law-enforcement tool against organized crime. The National Organization for Women, in a long-running lawsuit that concluded in 1998, successfully used the RICO act to bankrupt leaders of the national anti-abortion movement, including Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action League. The suit, which civil libertarians predicted would launch further litigation against political organizations, was given momentum when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that civil RICO actions could be brought against any type of organization.

"I don't want to be compared to Operation Rescue, by any means, but the use of the RICO statute to target anything related to speech is a big mistake," Goodwin contends. "They made a fundamental mistake to use the RICO statute to shut down anti-abortion groups. You open the door to where anybody who doesn't like a protest group can find some way of using it."

Since the coalition was targeted, another furrier in New Jersey has also filed suit against a group of protesters under the RICO statute. Both are pending.

Goodwin and other anti-fur protesters say the outcome of a recent civil suit in San Diego -- this one aimed at protesters picketing a Neiman Marcus mall outlet -- only supports their cause. There a judge declined to uphold an injunction against anti-fur pickets and modified a mall's policies that attempted to regulate the content of protesters' messages.

Eric Mindel, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Last Chance for Animals, said that his group stands to recover most of the $28,000 it spent on a lawyer after the judge ruled the defendants could recover legal fees.

"Trends come and go in movements, and the use of litigation against us seems to be rising," he says. "Most of our members aren't on a huge bankroll, and the cost of litigation is intimidating."

Several San Diego protesters, fearing financial ruin, signed various agreements with the mall limiting their right to picket, he says.

Mindel says he believes there is more litigation because groups such as his have a national agenda to picket major retailers rather than one-store fur boutiques. Goodwin's Dallas-based organization has just three targets on its protest agenda: Neiman Marcus, Macy's East, and Burlington Coat Factory.

"I think as a consequence, when you mess with the bigwigs, you get sued," Mindel says.

He says right-to-protest battles generate publicity and pose problems for retailers. "I don't think they were ready for a publicity war in San Diego," Mindel says. "We don't have to worry about alienating customers. We don't have to mind our p's and q's. And it really doesn't matter how they regard the fur issue, most Americans do mind when someone is trying to intimidate someone or take away their right to free speech."

Goodwin says he's done his best to turn the new suit to his organization's benefit. It's fairly uncommon for the person being sued to jump to issuing a press release, which is just what Goodwin did in this case.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec