Jay Johnson loves his beagle, Liam, with all his heart. Though he’s shared his home with his beloved rescue dog for nearly a decade, he’ll never tell you he’s Liam’s “owner.” He’s Liam’s guardian.
Oddly, publicly stating that he doesn’t “own” Liam could get Johnson fined or even arrested in the District of Columbia. Surprised?
It’s true. A provision of D.C.’s Animal Control regulation prohibits “knowingly and falsely deny[ing] ownership of any animal.”
As an animal activist and frequent public speaker on the issue of animals as property, Johnson sees D.C’s regulation as an infringement of his First Amendment right to free speech. To ensure he and others can talk about this issue freely and publicly when in D.C., he’s challenging the constitutionality of this provision of D.C. law.
Animals as Property
Most of the time, sadly, the law treats companion animals no differently than they treat your refrigerator or your sofa. They’re considered your “property” and nothing more. This has meant, for example, that lawsuits over the injury or death of a beloved pet often resulted only in reimbursing the plaintiff for the animal’s “fair market value” or “replacement cost” rather than the costs of the pet’s medical care, its pain and suffering, and the guardian’s attorney fees for seeking such restitution.
In many cities across the country, however, this perception of an animal’s legal status is slowly changing. A number of governmental bodies have added the term “guardian” to their animal-related municipal codes. They’ve done so in recognition of the fact that for many of us, animals are family, not commodities.
Liam‘s Life, Then and Now
For the first four years of his life, Liam the beagle lived a hellish existence as a research dog for Abbott Laboratories. He wasn’t known as Liam then. He was beagle number 8888884. How does Johnson know Liam’s life was so tragically cruel?
In an essay written by Johnson in 2010, he says it was crystal clear from the moment he met Liam:
People sometimes ask me how I can know that. How I can know what it was like for Liam in the lab? I know because I was the first person to see him when he came out. When Liam came to live with me, he was terrified. Not just of his new surroundings, but of everything. The sound of metal clinking, the feel of grass or anything soft, it all scared him.
The thing that broke my heart most, was that he was afraid of me as well. When I touched him, he would put his head down and put his tail between his legs. The only touch he had known had been the touch that was always followed by something painful. Something unpleasant. I could see it in his eyes when I touched him, he was afraid of what I was going to do to him. Afraid that myself and my friends would treat him exactly how all the other humans he had ever encountered had. As a thing. A tool. Nothing more than a number.
These words crush your soul a little, don’t they? These were four years of a life so bad it made this little dog afraid of absolutely everything.
Today, of course, Liam lives a happy, secure life with Johnson and knows he’ll never face the shocking cruelties of life in a research laboratory again. It’s a hope-filled future we’d wish for every innocent, helpless animal still held in labs around the world.
D.C.‘s Regulation and its (Perhaps Unintended) Effect on Free Speech
So why can’t Jay Johnson discuss Liam’s life and the fact that he does not view Liam as his property? Eleven words in the D.C. code are to blame.
Included in the “Prohibited Conduct” section of D.C.’s Animal Control regulation is section 8-1808(b), which says: “No person shall knowingly and falsely deny ownership of any animal.” According to Johnson’s complaint:
Each time Johnson would deny ownership of Liam in the District of Columbia, he would be subjected to arrest; a fine of up to $100; mandatory collateral posting of $5,000; and either the forfeiting of the $5,000 collateral, or a trial. These penalties have worked to prevent Johnson from scheduling and giving a speech about Liam in the District of Columbia and from privately speaking, denying ownership of Liam.
Of course, the likely reason this subsection is part of the regulation is to keep people from avoiding liability for animal-related incidents like dog bites or escaping accountability for incidents of animal neglect or cruelty. The problem is that the prohibition makes any assertion by Johnson that Liam is not his “property” just as culpable under the law.
Who’d enforce this law in that speech-stifling way? Maybe it would never happen — but it could. That’s enough. If a law can be used against them, seasoned animal activists know eventually it will be.
What Jay Johnson’s lawsuit seeks, in part, is a declaratory injunction that section 8-1808(b) is either unconstitutional on its face, or at least unconstitutional as applied to Johnson’s public and private speaking.†Mr. Johnson is represented by attorney Jeffrey Light.
Johnson filed his lawsuit in late December 2013. The government has not yet filed its response. This one’s worth watching to see just how D.C. and Jay Johnson work this issue out. Johnson has important things to say. He’d like to be able to say them in the District of Columbia.
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