May 18, 2011

Interview: Campus police arrest Vegan Outreach leafletter Nikki Benoit.

Vegan Outreach is a national nonprofit that has distributed millions of pieces of literature worldwide. Its college-based program alone has reached five million students on more than 1,800 college campuses.

Its regional outreach coordinator Nikki Benoit, who famously asked Obama that vegan question while he was on the campaign trail, was recently arrested at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., for handing out pamphlets outside of a designated free speech zone. Civil rights experts do not consider it constitutional to restrict free speech to certain areas on campus.

We spoke to Nikki for her side of the story.

What the hell happened?

When leafleting, many college campuses want outside organizations, even non-profits, to: a) sign in / apply for permission to leaflet; b) stand only in a “free speech zone” (they decide what’s suitable); and c) some will only let you table versus hand out literature. All of this is unconstitutional both at the state and federal levels. California is more liberal with this than most states.

Bryan Pease, attorney and Executive Director of the Animal Protection and Rescue League in San Diego, has been reiterating that we don’t need to abide by these rules, and if we’re cited or arrested, he will represent us and work within the system to change campus policies. Simple. His wife and co-pilot, Kath Rogers, and I were stopped while leafleting a private college in San Diego last month and she demonstrated how this civil disobedience action works. When the officer called in to dispatch to get the exact code to cite us with, he learned there isn’t one! Also, he said the school can ask us to sign in, but we really don’t have to. Clearly Bryan’s engaged with San Diego PD enough that now they know what our rights are. Two weeks ago I was freed from a citation at Southwestern College in Chula Vista for the same reason. There just needs to be enough cage-rattling to stop the madness.

What implications do you think this has for activists? It used to be that leafleting was considered a “low impact” tactic. Do you think this will hamper your work in the future?

Not at all. Leafleting is as peaceful and low-key as you can get. Most people see the positive influence this type of outreach has for raising awareness and feel empowered by its efficacy.

I’ve heard of other vegan advocates across the country standing their ground before, but I’ve not heard of anyone else being arrested. My legal representation is stellar. These charges are as good as dropped. They were in the wrong. People have been leafleting for ages. Vegan Outreach alone has had over 2,000 leafleters (mostly volunteers) distribute almost nine million leaflets across the globe – these are just the recorded figures. Just one activist intentionally pushing the peanut, knowing it will open doors for future activists, surely won’t eclipse the overwhelming benefits of leafleting.

Do you feel your arrest is at all related to the general climate in the country that wants to paint animal activists as dangerous “eco-terrorists?”

No. I don’t think people find leafleting to be a threat – on the surface. I honestly think these policy makers feel they’re within their rights to “protect” their students and “run the show” on campus. I’d paint this as more of a misguided control issue.

You’re taking action to get the criminal charges dismissed. Will you pursue a civil case against the school, or what other options are you considering?

We’re going to sue for violating my civil rights and for battery from the campus security officer.

What advice do you have for people who want to be more active for animals and might be put off by your experience?

Raising awareness of the facts is the only way we’ll garner community support against violence to animals. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain by leafleting. Not everyone has to take a stand like I did. Bryan is a free speech force – there is no doubt that he’ll loosen the chokehold that’s been smoldering our rights for too long, statewide.

Just imagine the ease leafleters will feel when they can just stroll on the campus of their choice, bang out a few hundred leaflets, and call it a day – drama free! The real shame is for groups like Vegan Outreach to have to waste time and resources, having staff drive to colleges, pay to park, only to be stifled, stuck in a corner and reach fewer people than if left alone. The animals don’t have time for this bureaucratic nonsense, and I’m happy to support VO and give Bryan a chance to work it.

For more analysis please see Vegan Activist Arrested for Leafleting on College Campus. Although the legal case is being handled pro bono, supporters are welcome to contribute to Vegan Outreach or APRL.

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