PETA wins Berosini reversal

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1994:

RENO, Nevada––The Nevada Supreme Court
on January 27 emphatically reversed the $4.2 million libel
verdict won by orangutan trainer Bobby Berosini in
August 1990 against People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, PETA director of investigations Jeanne Roush,
the Performing Animal Welfare Society, PAWS execu-
tive director Pat Derby, and dancer Ottavio Gesmundo.
Berosini contended that a videotape Gesmundo
secretly recorded backstage was false and defamatory.
The videotape was given to mass media by PETA, while
Derby commented upon it for Entertainment Tonight.
However, in a strongly worded 32-page opinion, the
four judges who reviewed the case concluded unanimous-
ly that, “The videotape is not false because it is an accu-
rate portrayal of the manner in which Berosini disciplined
his animals backstage before performances. The video-
tape is not defamatory because Berosini and his witnesses
take the position that the shaking, punching, and beating
that appear on the tape are necessary, appropriate and
justified for the training, discipline, and control of show
animals. If Berosini did not think that the tape showed
him doing anything wrong or disgraceful,” the decision
continued, “he should not be heard to complain that the
defendants defamed him merely by showing the tape.”

Libel experts considered the 1990 verdict an
aberation. Usual legal strategy would have pursued dis-
missal on points of law, but PETA embraced the trial as a
chance to try Berosini himself in the court of public opin-
ion. Clark County judge Myron Leavitt, who conducted
the trial, was a former roommate and law partner of
William Boyd, a co-owner of the Stardust hotel, where
Berosini performed. Leavitt had received $25,000 from
the Stardust during an unsuccessful bid for election to the
Nevada Supreme Court. Irritated by PETA theatrics,
especially after defense attorney Philip Hirschkop and
PETA president Alex Pacheco questioned his integrity,
Leavitt excluded 15 defense witnesses and fined PETA
$50,000 for acts of contempt––including staging a press
conference at which actress Rue McClanahan and disc
jockey Casey Kasem attacked him for alleged bias after
spending just six minutes in the courtroom.
Fighting the 1990 verdict––and posting a bond
of $800,000 in order to appeal it––caused PETA econom-
ic stress. But the stress was even greater for Derby, who
nearly lost the PAWS sanctuary when Berosini obtained a
lien against it and tried to collect his damages.
“Every time he made a move, we called a press
conference,” Derby told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “We got
media here and played the vidotape again. He’d back off
because he didn’t want all the TV stations to air the
video. But he could have foreclosed on us at any
The PAWS sanctuary now appears safe. “It’s
the broadest possible verdict, across the board,” Derby
exulted. “The court ruled that they saw what we said
Berosini did, and affirmed that we have the right to voice
our opinions.”
Berosini had a bad week, as a few days later
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revoked his license to
buy and sell animals.
RICO could still spell trouble
Despite the Nevada victory, PETA remains
under a legal cloud, though not one as imminently threat-
ening, due to the January 24 unanimous U.S. Supreme
Court ruling in National Organization for Women v.
S c h e i d l e r that the federal Racketeering-Influenced and
Corrupt Organizations Act may be invoked against
activist groups, if the plaintiffs can prove that two or
more crimes against them have been part of a “pattern of
racketeering activity” promoted by the activists named.
The ruling allows NOW to proceed with an eight-year-old
lawsuit against Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion
groups, whom NOW accuses of complicity in conspiring
to put abortion clinics out of business via bombings,
arson, and other acts of physical intimidation. RICO per-
mits victorious plaintiffs to collect triple damages.
“Under this decision, Martin Luther King Jr.
would have been a racketeer,” claimed Operation Rescue
founder Randall Terry. “What I’d say to the AIDS
activists, the anti-nuclear groups, and the animal rights
people is, get your affairs in order and line up, because
you’re next.”
Agreed Robert Blakey of the University of
Notre Dame law school, who was principal author of the
RICO act 25 years ago as a Senate staff counsel, “RICO
was not supposed to apply to organized political dissent.”
The original purpose of RICO was to fight extortionists.
PETA joined Earth First! and many feminist
and civil rights organizations in filing Amicus briefs in
support of the Operation Rescue position that RICO
should not be applicable. Justicies David Souter and
Anthony Kennedy noted their concerns in a concurring
opinion, warning that, “RICO actions could deter pro-
tected advocacy,” advising courts to “bear in mind the
First Amendment interests that could be at stake.”
Regardless of the outcome of a RICO suit, the
cost of fighting it and the risk of losing it could seriously
inhibit an activist group. Among animal protection
groups, PETA would appear to be most vulnerable
because it has often been first to announce actions of the
Animal Liberation Front, and thereby could be accused
of engaging in a tacit conspiracy to promote such
actions––if only by publicizing them after the fact.
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