During a protest in front of Miami Seaquarium last summer, a Miami-Dade cop arrested animal activist Steven Bagenski for holding a “Free Lolita” sign while standing on a public sidewalk. Believing his First Amendment rights were being curtailed, Bagenski, along with fellow activists, filed a lawsuit against MDPD with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
Now they've won a victory for the free-Lolita crowd. Yesterday MDPD agreed to let protesters use the public sidewalk outside the marine park, enabling activists to talk to patrons and hand out flyers without the fear of arrest.
“We are pleased that the police and county officials have agreed to respect everyone’s First Amendment rights at the Seaquarium,” said Shalini Goel Agarwal, ACLU of Florida staff attorney. "Police should not be blocking off the sidewalk to prevent people from advocating their views with their fellow citizens in a public place. This settlement assures that that won’t happen again outside the Seaquarium.”
According to the original complaint, the Seaquarium hired off-duty Miami-Dade cops to police the animal rights activists during their demonstrations, which call for the release of Lolita, an orca that's been held in captivity for more than four decades. MDPD created “red zones” on the public sidewalk near the marine park’s entrance where it prohibited protests.
Officers threatened to arrest any activists caught distributing leaflets inside or outside the red zone, and the cops did not allow the activists to speak to potential patrons of the marine park in a “conversational” tone. That led to some ugly confrontations between police and protesters, such as this incident in May:
Geragi Jeff, the president of the Animal Activists Network and a co-plaintiff on the case, says the settlement is a win for the First Amendment.
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"It's important to have freedom of speech so that injustices can be brought to the public view," Jeff said. "This is what this country is founded on and, in my opinion, is one of the most important rights we have. I encourage everyone to stand up for what they believe in."
In addition to getting rid of the red zone policy, the county paid Bagenski $1,330 to settle the case.
“I feel like an injustice is finally being corrected,” Bagenski says. “When I was arrested for exercising my First Amendment rights, I was shocked. I’m glad that we now have an agreement that makes clear it was wrong.”
New Times contacted Miami Seaquarium for a statement, but because the lawsuit was not directed at the park, the park declined to comment.