Wichita A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Kansas State Fair can require an animal-rights group to shield people walking by its booth from easily seeing images depicting animal slaughter.
U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten rejected a request from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to block the restrictions on its booth for the fair, which starts Friday. The judge determined the fair is a "limited public forum," because exhibitors have to apply for a booth and pay a fee — unlike a public square, for example, where anybody has the right to protest or speak.
PETA plans to show a 13-minute video, "Glass Walls," which depicts animals being slaughtered and instances of abuse at factory farms. It filed a lawsuit last week asking the court to immediately block the fair's requirements that it shield people from the video.
In rejecting the group's request for that restraining order, Marten said restrictions imposed by fair officials were minimal and did not constitute any significant infringement on PETA's free speech rights. However, Marten declined to dismiss PETA's lawsuit, as the state had requested.
Marten noted fair officials are not preventing PETA from showing its undercover video. Instead, he said, this could be as simple as turning a TV screen away from the public flow down the aisle.
"It is simply a matter of whether you can have it shoved in your face, or whether you take a step or two in another direction," Marten said.
The judge was clearly uncomfortable with his ruling, telling lawyers at a hearing that it ran counter to his own personal feelings and saying that he would not have a problem taking his own children by the video. But he said he believed the fair board acted responsibly. He invited PETA to appeal to the 10th Circuit for an immediate ruling that would provide more guidance.
It is unclear whether PETA intends to further pursue the issue. PETA's attorney, Bill Raney, said following the hearing that no decision had been made yet about whether to appeal the judge's ruling or even whether to proceed with the lawsuit, which names the Kansas Fair Board, the state and the fair's general manager, Denny Stoecklein, as defendants.
"We are disappointed," Raney said. "We think the fair is a designated public forum."
PETA later issued a written statement saying it was considering an appeal.
"The Kansas State Fair's requirement that PETA hide its video from fairgoers is like the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy that she can't look behind the curtain," PETA said. "We believe the First Amendment means that we can show our video without limitation to reveal what the animal agriculture industry wishes no one would see — that animals confined in filth on factory farms are routinely beaten and kicked by workers and have their throats cut open while they're still conscious at the slaughterhouse."
Kansas Deputy Attorney General Jeff Chanay said the state was pleased with the court's ruling.
"We are thankful for the opportunity to present our position in court," Chanay said.
During the hearing, the state tried to distinguish the fair from a traditional public forum by portraying it as "Kansas' largest classroom."
If the fair were equated to a public forum, that would destroy the atmosphere of the event, argued Stephen McAllister, one of the attorneys representing the state. One group might want to show dead soldiers to protest wars, another might want to show aborted fetuses to protest abortion, another might want to include nudity in a booth. The state has a compelling interest in controlling what is presented to children in this setting, McAllister said.
"It is not about trying to restrict the message; it is trying to see the environment is appropriate," McAllister said.
But Raney argued that in its own commercial exhibitor materials, the fair has called the event a "public forum of limited duration." Therefore, Raney said, the fair is subject to the same rules as any other public forum.
"The First Amendment is not so easily evaded," Raney argued. "You can silence someone indirectly."