Animal rights group find ways to free attention
Published: Saturday, October 11th, 2003
Say what you will about People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — we say it’s an animal cult trapped in a state of advocacy adolescence — but the group has mastered the art of shocking American sensibilities, and getting a lot of free media attention in the process. We’re glad to see not everyone is willing to help facilitate the group’s frequently extreme and tasteless animal rights rants. For the last few years, the group that formerly contented itself with picketing furriers has adopted a particularly gruesome, yet effective strategy of exploiting controversial events to drive home its message. Several summers back, for instance, following a nationally publicized shark attack on one Florida youngster, the group hired out billboards in the same town in which the attack occurred, carrying messages that sympathized with the shark rather than the boy. More recently, PETA has been exploiting the war in Iraq to give the tactic another spin — this time, with an ad picturing a dinner plate, knife and fork and the tagline, “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Billions of animals are killed because people eat meat — stop the slaughter.” As PETA ads go, we actually find this one relatively tactful, but that wasn’t the reaction of Lamar Outdoors, which declined to rent the group billboard space in Colorado Springs, Colo., in deference to the many military people who might take offense. Had such billboards gone up, they might indeed have caused a stir, and perhaps even a backlash against both PETA and the company that rented it a forum. So the company’s stance, though undoubtedly sincere, was also just smart PR. Denying PETA an opportunity to rent and vent is in no way a form of censorship, or a violation of the group’s rights to free speech, if that’s what some are thinking. The word “censorship” is regularly and inappropriately evoked in such cases. Censorship describes official government policies or actions meant to restrict free expression. In a country in which censorship is at work, groups with which the government disagrees not only wouldn’t be allowed to plaster their messages on billboards, but those ideas would be systematically suppressed by the state, and those who believed them would be lucky to be able to express them in whispers between trusted friends. The rights being exercised in this case — and which in this instance trump PETA’s right to wage rhetorical war on American carnivores — are property rights. The billboard company has a right to use its private property as it sees fit, giving it the ultimate discretion to run advertisements or not run them, based on what it finds appropriate. Those who make profits running advertisements, including this newspaper, are naturally prone to give advertisers as much latitude as they responsibly can — yet that profit motive and respect for free speech oftentimes can be balanced against other considerations, including the sensibilities of the potential audience. PETA is free to take its advertisements to another form of media if it chooses, and there never seems to be a shortage of those. But PETA never actually has to run an ad to get the attention it craves — the shock value of its messages is usually enough to garner plenty of free publicity, often without ever having to pay for an ad. Like a squawking and bratty child, the group usually gets what it wants either way — just a little cheap publicity, which probably turns off more people than it turns on, assuring that PETA remains on the lunatic fringe. So now we can all go back to doing what we were doing — planning a nice steak dinner or holding a barbecue, perhaps.
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