Chalk up one for the elephant handlers.
After two longtime Bay Area animal rights activists sued Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for allegedly harassing them as they tried to videotape the backstage treatment of animals, the federal jury hearing the case began deliberations in San Jose on Valentine's Day afternoon. And it was soon clear that the jurors didn't buy what activists Deniz Bolbol and Joseph Patrick Cuviello were selling.
"The jury went out at 2:47 p.m.,'' Ringling's attorney, Ruby Kazi, said Saturday. "And when they came back at 4:05 p.m., their decision was completely unanimous. It was very clear to the jurors that the plaintiffs were just trying to drum up a lawsuit.''
In the suit, filed in 2011, the plaintiffs had argued that Ringling employees had pointed lasers at their video cameras and tried to interfere with their filming by using ropes and water blasts.
"This is just the latest in a long series of cases that Pat and I have been forced to bring because of Ringling's attempts to stop us from documenting the abuse of their animals,'' Bolbol said Saturday after she and Cuviello lost their case in U.S. District Court in San Jose.
Referring to videos on the website for their group, Humanity Through Education, in which elephants handlers are shown beating the pachyderms to keep them in line, Bolbol said that "we've been gathering this evidence for 10 years now, but Ringling manages to convince the public that they're doing things differently now -- that those practices were in the past. So we have to have current evidence that it's still going on, which is why we filed this suit. Without our freedom of speech upheld, we can't go on to the next step.''
The crux of the court case was whether the circus, through its employees, had taken actions to "intentionally interfere with Plaintiffs' free speech rights for the purpose of chilling plaintiffs in the exercise of their constitutionally protected rights,'' as the activists had claimed in their complaint.
"Every year,'' their attorney wrote, "the Circus has used many different tactics to harass and interfere with Plaintiffs and other activists while they are attempting to videotape the Circus' treatment of the animals, including spraying Plaintiffs with fire hoses, shining laser pointers into Plaintiffs' eyes and cameras lenses and tangling Plaintiffs up with a rope.''
Kazi called that nonsense. She said the plaintiffs had stood outside a 7-foot wall beside the loading dock in back of HP Pavilion in August 2010, hoisting their cameras on monopods above the wall to peek into a private area where circus performers and animals spend time between shows. Then the trouble began.
"A handful of the circus employees directed laser pointers at the cameras,'' Kazi said. "The employees felt like this was their private space, not a public area, and they told the activists 'You can't do this.'
"This is where they hang out and take their smoke breaks and relax, and they felt that pointing the lasers at the cameras was harmless fun,'' Kazi said. "One guy described it as being like duck hunting. They'd point the laser at one camera, which would drop down behind the wall, and another camera would pop up.''
Bolbol and Cuviello considered it harassment, a way for the circus to shut down what the activists considered was a perfectly legal campaign to gather evidence of wrongdoing. And even though the jury didn't agree with them, the activists vow to press on.
"We're not doing anything illegal out there,'' Bolbol said. "So until a court tells us that we can't videotape over that wall, we'll go back and do it again.''
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689, or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.