Historic Win for Animals, Advocacy and Freedom of Speech!



Charleston Animal Society and other animal advocacy organizations and individuals won a major lawsuit brought against them to intimidate and stifle their efforts to bring humane reform to Charleston’s carriage tourist attraction. This was a win for animals, advocacy and freedom of speech!

It all started nearly four years ago, when a carriage horse, “Big John,” collapsed during a tour in Downtown Charleston. Charleston Animal Society created a video of the incident comprised of footage it received from eyewitnesses as part of its advocacy efforts to make working conditions for the carriage horses more humane, especially during the intense heat of summer. Charleston Carriage Works, which owned Big John, threatened to bring legal action if Charleston Animal Society did not retract the video. The video remains on Charleston Animal Society’s YouTube channel and has more than 66,000 views.

A year later, the carriage company brought a lawsuit against Charleston Animal Society, Charleston Carriage Horse Advocates and Ellen Harley claiming, amongst other things, that the use of the word “collapse” in the video was defamatory. The Court disagreed, holding that the video “is a fundamental example of the type of public discourse protected by the First Amendment.” The Court also determined, based on the carriage company owner’s testimony, that the use of the word “collapse” was not defamatory because it was “substantially true.”

This type of lawsuit is what is known as a “SLAPP” lawsuit – a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, which is 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. Anti- SLAPP legislation has been enacted in 32 states, both conservative and liberal, in the United States. In fact, most of the southern states have anti-SLAPP laws. North Carolina and South Carolina do not. There have been efforts in the SC Legislature to ban these type of intimidation lawsuits, which are a threat to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (learn more on page 20).

Not only did this lawsuit attempt to stop advocacy efforts for more humane working conditions in line with other cities across America, it was one of many tactics, including physical assault, threats, smear campaigns, and the misleading of public and elected officials, launched by the carriage tourist attraction industry to discredit and intimidate the advocacy organizations.

Charleston Animal Society was founded 148 years ago to prevent cruelty to animals like other animal organizations in that era, specifically working horses and livestock. Charleston Animal Society remains steadfast in its efforts to encourage more humane working conditions for the equines working in the stressful urban environment downtown, which the Animal Society considers the harshest working conditions of this kind in the country.

Joe Elmore is President and CEO of Charleston Animal Society.