So do people really “own” their pets?
A longtime animal-rights activist who thinks that pets should not be considered property was dealt a setback in federal court when a judge threw out his legal case challenging D.C. law that forbids him from denying “ownership” of his beagle.
Iver Robert Johnson III sued the District in December because of a city law that says that “no person shall knowingly and falsely deny ownership of any animal.”
Where, he wondered, would that leave his beloved beagle Liam, a former laboratory test subject he began caring for in 2004 and frequently mentioned in speeches at animal-rights events.
Mr. Johnson argued in court that his publicly stating that he did not “own” his animal would leave him vulnerable under the law to fines that start at $25 and escalate to $100 for a third offense within two years. He said the city law had a “chilling effect” on his free speech.
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But the city balked at the claim, saying Mr. Johnson had no standing to bring the case because he couldn’t demonstrate a threat of any type of injury was imminent. Moreover, health department officials came forward to say the purpose of the law had nothing to do with free speech but that it was meant as a tool to compel deadbeats to get their pets licensed and vaccinated.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, in an 11-page opinion dated Friday, acknowledged that the city does not define the term “ownership,” but largely sidestepped the existential issue of whether a person’s connection to an animal in their care is more or less than their tie to an object or property.
Instead, the judge decided the case largely on a procedural argument, noting that even by the liberal standard with which free-speech cases need to be considered a First Amendment defense is difficult to present without a demonstrated threat to free speech.
Judge Lamberth noted that prosecution in the case “is not remotely likely” and that even the presumption of enforcement could be overcome if it could be demonstrated that the law was “moribund.”
“Here, the statute has gone unenforced for nearly four decades, and there is no evidence that the government has ever enforced the statute on these facts,” he wrote. “In fact, it seems likely that the government has never enforced this statute at all.”
The judge said the Office of the Attorney General searched its case-management files and the Department of Health pored over its databases and could not find an incident of a person being cited for denying ownership of their dog.
“After nearly forty years of nonenforcement, there is little reason to think the statute will be enforced in the future,” Judge Lamberth concluded.
As it turns out, the debate over the terminology used for pets is not new in the District.
The D.C. Council in 2007 considered a bill that called, in part, for removing the term “owner” from legislative language and replacing it with the phrase “guardian/owner.” According to the committee report on the bill, the provision was dropped after witnesses said it could create unintended legal consequences.
Mr. Johnson’s lawyer, Jeffrey Light, said he was disappointed with Judge Lamberth’s decision, but that his larger goal was to take a subtle step toward getting the courts and the public to conceptualize greater identity rights for animals.
“This case was never going to get the courts to declare ‘animal personhood.’ It’s a First Amendment case,” he said. “What we were hoping was we would be able to get out what it means to be an owner and raise some questions with the public.”
Mr. Johnson agreed, saying he hoped his lawsuit was a step toward raising awareness of animal-rights issues that could lead to reconsideration of things like animal testing and factory farms.
“Language is very important. It may seem like a trivial matter, but those distinctions have long-standing ramifications,” he said. “While it is disappointing, it is still in my view some sort of victory in that it gets people thinking and gets people talking about these issues.”
The judge left open the possibility that if Mr. Johnson ever was cited for claiming he did not own his dog, he could bring the matter before the courts.
But the chances of that are currently a little more remote. Liam passed away in April.