A battle between animal rights activists and companies that provide primates for medical research has spilled onto the quiet suburban streets of Pinecrest. And leaders of the upscale South Miami-Dade community may pass a law to keep the protests away from private homes.
The ordinance, being revisedafter discussion at last week’s Village Council meeting, was first written to prohibit outright any “picketing before or about the residence or dwelling of any individual in the village.” That would prohibit picketing against a particular person in front of his or her home, but not general picketing or demonstrations in public residential areas, according to Deputy Village Attorney Chad Friedman.
Friedman is now revising the ordinance to include new parameters, including the possibility of misdemeanor charges for violation, a 50-foot buffer zone between the property line and where picketing is permitted, and 72 hours’ notice to police before protests.
The notice provision and criminal penalties were recommended by Pinecrest Police Chief Samuel Ceballos, who told the council that while a recent protest had been “obnoxious,” it had also remained “peaceful,” and that the police department simply wanted to establish a protocol.
“This ordinance would provide us with some guidance, and if the parties were to deviate from the ordinance, there are some sanctions and we can take action,” he said, adding that requiring notice would make it easier for the police department to prepare, and that criminal penalties would make the ordinance easier to enforce.
The initial draft of the ordinance was lifted more-or-less verbatim from an ordinance upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988, which means that it would be practically impossible to challenge as-is.
“In very rare cases will a listener’s right not to hear trump a private speaker’s right to speak, but this is one of these very rare cases,” said University of Miami law professor Caroline Mala Corbin. “The Supreme Court has held that privacy and quiet in one’s home is in fact a ‘compelling state interest’ that can justify limits on speech.”
But the new provisions — although they’ve appeared in ordinances around the country — would go beyond what the Supreme Court has ruled on. The 50-foot buffer zone appeared in a Winter Park ordinance in 2012, and was upheld by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March. According to Friedman, if it isn’t appealed to the Supreme Court this week, it will become binding law in Florida.
Pinecrest’s ordinance is a response to protests staged by Smash HLS, a collection of local animal rights activists targeting companies involved in the primate trade. In Pinecrest, the group has been targeting Matthew Block of Worldwide Primates, a Miami-based primate importing company.
Smash is often painted as extreme for targeting homes and posting personal information about its targets online, and Worldwide filed a suit in March seeking a permanent restraining order against Smash members, alleging that the group was engaging in a campaign to “intimidate, stalk and terrorize” company employees.
Smash member Ron Roberts says that while several south Florida Smash activists have been arrested, none have been convicted.
“We do not engage in acts of violence,” Roberts said. “The only weapons we use are words.”
Roberts points out that the target of the group’s ire in Pinecrest, on the other hand, has been convicted, and on felony charges.
Block was sentenced in 1993 to 13 months in federal prison for his role in the orangutan-smuggling case known internationally as the “Bangkok Six,” in which several baby orangutans died. He pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act and provided information about other smugglers in a bid to get a lighter sentence, but prosecutors eventually recommended stiff penalties, arguing that Block hadn’t fully cooperated.
Pinecrest Village Manager Yocelyn Galiano Gomez said that village staff didn’t know about Block’s past when he came to them for help but that it was nonetheless “irrelevant.”
“This is strictly about setting parameters for preserving the quality of life and safety of our residents,” she said.
Block didn’t speak at last week’s council meeting, but the council did hear from a Worldwide Primates employee whose home has been targeted for protests.
John Resuta, who lives in Cutler Bay, told the council that “we’re all in fear for our life from this group, because they’re an extremist type group,” adding that Smash had picketed his home 14 times in two years.
Cutler Bay has the same lawyers as Pinecrest, and town officials last year considered putting a similar ordinance on the books when Resuta came to Town Hall for help. They ultimately decided not to go ahead with an ordinance when their police chief told them the department already had a protocol in place.
“The town of Cutler Bay’s police department, which is the Miami-Dade County police department, has been able to protect everybody’s interests if and when we’ve had any protests in the town,” said Cutler Bay Town Manager Rafael Casals.