Phila. agrees to settle with animal rights activist arrested for protesting in 2009

By Jon Campisi | Jan 26, 2012

An animal rights activist who claims he was illegally picked up by police for distributing fliers outside of a Philadelphia grocery outlet will receive $15,000 from the city to settle his claims, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania announced Tuesday.

Edward Coffin, who sued the City of Philadelphia in December for civil rights violations, was arrested and detained for two hours after a Whole Foods manager complained to police about the protest activities back in late 2009.

In his complaint, which was filed by staff attorneys with the ACLU-PA, Coffin alleged that his experience was not a rarity, but rather the norm in a city where regular beat cops often aren’t trained to deal with protesters engaging in free speech activities, with that job left up to the Philadelphia Police Department’s Civil Affairs Unit.

The Civil Affairs Unit main mission is to oversee demonstrations, marches and labor disputes.

“It’s not hard to understand that people have the right to speak on public sidewalks,” Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney with the Pennsylvania office of the ACLU, said in a statement. “If our police don’t get that, they are being told something else.”

The complaint alleged that Coffin was detained by police after a Whole Foods’ representative complained of the plaintiff’s picketing outside the South Philadelphia supermarket back on Dec. 23, 2009.

Coffin had been protesting the store’s sale of animal products at the time of his arrest.

After Coffin refused the manager’s request to leave the area, police were called, and the demonstrator was told he was not allowed to leaflet in a “business district,” according to the ACLU.

When Coffin told the responding officer that he was on a public sidewalk, and allowed to leaflet, the protester was “handcuffed and marched down the street in full public view to the police mini-station a block away,” according to a statement by the ACLU.

The civil rights organization stated that once at the police station, Coffin showed the officer that Philadelphia law only requires a demonstration permit for commercial leafleting activities.

The officer, in turn, charged Coffin under an ordinance that requires a permit for a parade. The charge was later thrown out.

“Being arrested and silenced for doing nothing more than engaging in nonviolent public outreach was incredibly violating and I fear has a chilling effect on others who might consider exercising their constitutional right to have an opinion that doesn’t fit the status quo,” Coffin said in a statement.

The lawsuit alleged that the City of Philadelphia does not provide training to uniformed officers on the rights of protesters and the application of city ordinances involving leafleting and protesting.

Instead, the Philadelphia Police Department relies on its Civil Affairs Unit officers when it comes to handling protest activities.

The complaint argued that the department should also be providing protest training to regular patrolmen and women since they are the ones who are most likely to come into initial contact with a demonstrator on a public street.

In addition to lawyers with the ACLU-PA, Coffin was represented in his suit by attorney Paul Messing, of the Philadelphia firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg.

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