Charleston Animal Society calls for ‘anti-SLAPP’ law after lawsuit victory

Published: Aug. 11, 2022 at 3:51 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 11, 2022 at 4:44 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston Animal Society called a court finding in a carriage company’s lawsuit is “a win for animals, advocacy and freedom of speech.”

Charleston Carriage Works LLC sued the Charleston Animal Society, Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates and others associated with the organizations over social media posts showing its horse, “Big John” lying on a street in downtown Charleston in 2017.

The lawsuit alleged slander and interference with their business.

The Charleston Animal Society said it was an example of a “SLAPP” case, which stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.”

“Strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAPP lawsuits are illegal in most states in our country, both conservative and liberal states,” Elmore said. “In fact, 32 states have anti-SLAPP laws. Most of our southern neighboring states have these laws in place, such as Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia and a current bill in the North Carolina legislature. It’s time for South Carolina to pass an anti-SLAPP law.”

SLAPP suits are “often used to intimidate advocacy organizations, such as those advocating for civil rights, environmental and animal protection, women’s rights, and many more, into backing down from their advocacy efforts due to the legal costs of defending these types of claims,” Charleston Animal Society spokesperson Kay Hyman said.

Andy Brack, the publisher of Charleston City Paper, attended the news conference as a representative of the South Carolina Press Association.

“We are here today to celebrate a victory for free speech, and no pun intended, for watchdogs because if we don’t have an environment where reporters and watchdogs can accurately tell the public what’s going on about public debate, then we are in trouble as a democracy,” Brack said. “And so I want to applaud the Charleston Animal Society for standing up to this, what I consider a frivolous lawsuit. It’s taken four years for it to go away.”

Brack said he hopes these kinds of frivolous lawsuits no longer find their way into the courtrooms of Charleston County and across the state.

Thirty-two states have anti-SLAPP laws on the books, Hyman said.

Lawsuit focused on social media video about 2017 horse incident

In 2017, animal rights activists posted a video on social media of a horse named "Big John" on...
In 2017, animal rights activists posted a video on social media of a horse named "Big John" on the ground of a downtown street.(Live 5)

The lawsuit focused on animal advocates sharing what they are calling the “eyewitness video” of the incident involving Big John with captions and comments questioning work conditions and care for carriage horses. The carriage company sued them for defamation. The court ruled that the posts were part of public discussion on a topic of public concern, which is protected by the first amendment.

“The plaintiff falsely claimed that the animal society defamed them about a video provided by eyewitnesses, which the animal society and others published,” Charleston Animal Society President and CEO Joe Elmore said.

One issue was the use of the word “collapse” to describe the incident. A news release from the Charleston Animal Society cites a passage in the court ruling with respect to that word:

As to the use of the word ‘collapse’, Plaintiff bears the burden of presenting admissible evidence that the horse did not collapse. It has failed to do so. Rather, as discussed below, the Court finds that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on this claim on the basis that it is substantially true.

Elmore said the court sided with the Charleston Animal Society, ruling that it was “honest in its assertions a horse collapsed.”

The official report from the City of Charleston says the horse “stumbled and fell” to the pavement. The report, released in April 2017, tracked the horse’s journey from North Market Street to Church Street to Pinckney Street and then onto Meeting Street traveling North.

“At approximately 323 Meeting St. (in front of FIG restaurant) the horse stumbled and fell to the pavement,” the report states.

The Charleston Carriage Works driver called the company barn for help and passengers exited the carriage, the report states. Livability officers said the horse was on its right side and barn hands were attempting to release the horse from the harness and tack equipment. Firefighters from the nearby Meeting Street Fire Station also helped lift the horse to free it from the entanglement, at which point the horse sat up on its rump.

“A large strap from the harness was used to lift the horse so it could get its rear legs from under its body and Big John stood up on all fours,” the report states.

Big John was then walked back to the CCW barn and the entire incident lasted 11 minutes, the report states.

City of Charleston Livability Director Dan Riccio said the horse suffered minor scratches to its left rear hock and right front elbow. Immediately after the fall, the horse sat up and was helped back to its feet, he said.

Tommy Goldstein, a lawyer representing Charleston Carriage Works referred us to a statement calling the Charleston Animal Society, “a political and PR giant, yet we are determined to pursue the truth despite their well-funded attempts to prevail via attrition and misrepresentation.”

He added that legal disputes are better resolved in courtrooms than in dueling press conferences, and says the summary judgment is only a first step. Charleston Carriage Works filed an appeal to review the case Thursday.

In that earlier statement, Goldstein said it was important to note that no jury has yet evaluated the facts in the case.

“The Charleston Animal Society has over $28 million in assets and receives more than $5,500 from Charleston County taxpayers every single day,” he said.

A judge denied the carriage company’s two motions to reconsider on Aug. 2.

The Charleston Animal Society says it is not opposed to working animals, “as long as the conditions they work in are humane.”

“Charleston Animal Society believes the public deserves an independent, scientific, peer-reviewed, prospective study of the horses and mules that work in Charleston’s stressful, urban environment to provide a framework for humane working conditions,” the news release states.

“Charleston has the harshest working conditions for horses in this type of tourist attraction throughout the entire nation,” Elmore said. “The question is not what the forces can physically do, but what they should do in a humane manner. This has been our point alone. Not only did the court see that the plaintiff’s claims were baseless, but also that the plaintiff systematically violates the law as do others in this tourist enterprise. And the city acknowledges it, but does not enforce it.”

Elmore called for “strong, honest, reform and oversight” but said that in the meantime, the Charleston Animal Society will continue to be a champion in the voice for animals in the community.

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