Golden Gate Fields owners can sue animal-rights group that disrupted races, state Supreme Court says

Golden Gate Fields owners can sue animal-rights group that disrupted races, state Supreme Court says

The state Supreme Court refused Wednesday to block a lawsuit by owners of Golden Gate Fields against an animal-rights group that allegedly recruited protesters to lie down on the racetrack last year and chain themselves together, briefly bringing horse racing to a halt.

In March 2021, four demonstrators climbed a fence to enter the north Berkeley shoreline racetrack. According to the track owners, they set off smoke flares, then lay down with pipes connecting their arms, and were not removed for hours. One race was canceled and others were delayed.

The owners, Golden Gate Land Holdings, sued not only the protesters but also the activist group Direct Action Everywhere. The organization denied involvement in the protest and contended the real motivation of the suit was its signature-gathering and ongoing campaign to shut down the track because of its dangers to race horses — 19 have died there this year, according to the California Horse Racing Board. And the organization said the owners were trying to restrict free speech.

But the First District Court of Appeal
ruled in July
that the case could proceed, at least for now.

In their lawsuit, the owners refer to “the organization’s alleged involvement in the illegal trespass, not its speech or petitioning activity,” Presiding Justice James Humes wrote
in a 3-0 ruling. He said the track owners have not offered evidence to support their accusations, and their suit could be dismissed without a trial if they fail to do so. But based on the owners, claims, Humes said, Direct Action Everywhere is not entitled to dismissal under a California law that seeks to limit meritless suits that discourage free expression.

The organization appealed to the state’s high court, which denied review Wednesday, returning the case to an Alameda County judge for further proceedings.

Michael Betz, a lawyer for the racetrack owners, said their suit poses no threat to free speech.

“Free speech is very important to all of us, but it’s got to be exercised lawfully,” he said after the court order. “When they entered the track illegally, trespassed, used incendiary devices, it goes beyond the bounds of what we all recognize as free speech.” And Betz said there was strong evidence that Direct Action Everywhere had promoted the protest.

But attorney David Loy of the First Amendment Coalition, which filed arguments supporting the animal-rights group’s appeal, said the appeals court had explicitly allowed the suit to proceed without any such evidence, a potential precedent for attacks on freedom of expression. By the same principle, Loy said, someone who was injured by a rock thrown at a protest might be allowed to sue a newspaper whose coverage allegedly encouraged the protest.

The track owners “still have to prove their case in court, and they may well lose, but the process itself is often the punishment,” Loy said, referring to the time and expense of defending the case.

California’s 1992 anti-SLAPP law, which stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, applies to suits that are aimed at suppressing free speech and have no substantial likelihood of success. If a judge makes those findings, the suit will be quickly dismissed and the plaintiff must pay the defendant’s attorney’s fees and legal costs. More than half the states have similar laws.

In this case, the appeals court said the anti-SLAPP law did not apply because the track owners’ suit was directed at conduct, not speech.

The case is Golden Gate Land Holdings v. Direct Action Everywhere, S276032.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @BobEgelko

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Golden Gate Fields owners can sue animal-rights group that disrupted races, state Supreme Court says

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