FARMERS MARKET — The pony ride operator who’s been the target protests since April isn’t ready to put the issue out to pasture.
Tawni’s Ponies — which has provided pony rides at the Main Street Farmers’ Market since 2003 — and its owners are suing protesters, claiming libel, infliction of emotional distress, and interference with possible economic advantage.
In September, after months of protest, City Council voted 4 to 0 to seek a non-animal related vendor for the Farmers’ Market plot currently occupied by Tawni’s Ponies. This will happen after the business’ contract with City Hall expires in May. The decision will likely spell the end of pony rides and petting zoos at the Main Street Market.
Former congressional candidate Marcy Winograd led the charge against the pony rides at the Main Street Market and is the lead defendant in the lawsuit, filed Monday on behalf of Tawni’s Ponies and its wife-husband owners Tawni Angel and Jason Nester.
Winograd told the Daily Press that she’ll file an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion in response. Anti-SLAPP motions are meant to protect defendants against lawsuits that would censor their criticisms.
Winograd’s argument for the ousting of the ponies from the Farmers’ Market was based on the belief that the animals were being treated inhumanely. She said that the animals were uncomfortable, being forced to sit out in the hot sun. She said that the length of the lead ropes were too short. All of this, she said, was teaching kids that the mistreatment of animals is OK.
The suit, filed on Monday, alleges that Winograd and others repeatedly publicly accused Tawni’s Ponies of animal abuse despite numerous assurances from city and police officials that no abuse was occurring.
“I have only told the truth, expressing my opinion, both in words and photographs, throughout this period of protest, in which 1,450 people have signed my petition to shut down the animal exhibits and records obtained under the California Public Records Act have surfaced past complaints about the animal exhibits,” Winograd told the Daily Press in response to the lawsuit.
Winograd uncovered the fact that Tawni’s Ponies had been operating with a business license that expired in 2004. Angel has since updated her license.
Winograd, the suit alleges, said on-line and to the media that the ponies had cracked hooves.
Angel and Nester claim that their ponies did not have cracked hooves and present, as evidence, a letter from Santa Monica Police Department Sgt. Mike Graham, a horse-owner who wrote that the ponies were “well-cared for, and in good condition.”
In 1999, a previous Farmers’ Market pony ride operator was arrested by SMPD after it was discovered her animals were living in squalor, according to the Los Angeles Times archives.
Representatives from the Farmers’ Market and the business license department, in written statements, also referenced the fact that City Hall’s Animal Control Division checked Angel’s pony rides three times and found no violations, the lawsuit alleges.
Protesters, the suit alleges, continued to show up with signs that read “STOP ANIMAL ABUSE”.
The repeated accusations, the lawsuit alleges, were libelous.
“In the United States of America, and to an even stronger extent in the State of California, the First Amendment to our federal Constitution (and its state counterpart) guarantees freedom of speech,” Winograd said of the lawsuit. “To petition, protest, and advocate before governmental bodies and public marketplaces are constitutional rights and therefore protected speech. This lawsuit is an attempt to silence dissent in the City of Santa Monica, where the pony ride and petting zoo have been the subject of criticism and protests for years, well before my personal involvement.”
Winograd also sent e-mails to city officials (and this newspaper) with the subject line “Look at this – “Guns” – “My Bitches” – “Tawni at Firing Range” – “Alcohol in the Morning”.
The e-mails include screenshots of a post Nester made on Facebook that opposed President Barack Obama and open borders. Nester’s post also references a preference for the English language.
One post depicts him and Angel at firing range. Another of the photos shows Angel holding a bottle of vodka while on a ski trip. One of Nester’s photos, depicting three women, is captioned “My bitches !!!”
“While we value freedom of speech, these screen shots of rifles, Tawni at the firing range, and racially-tainted and sexist references featured on the Main Street farmers market pony and petting zoo operator’s Facebook page does make one pause and wonder if it’s in the best interest of the city of Santa Monica to embrace and promote this business,” Winograd said in the e-mail sent in May.
In another e-mail sent to city officials and the Daily Press Winograd calls them “not-so-veiled racist” posts.
The lawsuit alleges that these e-mails served as an assault on Angel’s and Nester’s character.
The lawsuit also names Danielle Charney, who, according to the lawsuit, accused Nester and Angel of being “racist – bigoted – anti-women RW [right-wing] alcoholic gun toters.”
Charney said that while she did make comments on Facebook, they were in the context of a long thread of comments from people on both sides of the issue. She said that the thread had turned “nasty” and that she was baited into responding. She also claims that the lawsuit is confusing her with other protesters at the market and that Nester and Angel don’t actually know who she is.
Winograd, a special education teacher, said that in her public school district those who work with children would be subject to close scrutiny or termination, if they posted a video of themselves “spraying bullets from a rapidly firing gun at a shooting range.”
“The celebratory gun posts, along with anti-immigrant ‘close the border’ screeds, were cause for concern, particularly since those who operate at the front of our city market are, in essence, city ambassadors welcoming visitors far and wide to Ocean Park,” Winograd said in response to the lawsuit.
For her not to have shared the information, Winograd said, would have been irresponsible, given Angel’s and Nester’s working relationship with children of diverse ethnicities.
The lawsuit alleges that, with their exit from the Farmers’ Market in May, Tawni’s Ponies will lose about $75,000 worth of business.
Additionally, the suit alleges, they’ll lose new pony ride and petting zoo business given the “false accusations of animal abuse” that were published.
The suit alleges that Nester and Angel “have also suffered harm to their reputation in the community, and have suffered shame, mortification and hurt feelings given the falsity of the accusations made in connection with animals that Angel and Nester love and care for on a daily basis, and the personal nature of the attacks against them.”
Winograd alleges that she tried numerous times to compromise with Angel and Nester but that her requests were never responded to.
“I am a public high school special education teacher, working with at risk students struggling with autism, emotional disturbance, attention deficit disorder and specific learning disabilities,” she said. “I take seriously what we teach our children and want our youngsters to learn that animals are wonderful companions who deserve to be treated humanely.”
Don Chomiak, a lawyer representing Nester and Angel, said that protesters should be held accountable for the consequences felt by his clients.
“Animal abuse is a crime – a crime my clients did not commit,” he said in a release. “Marcy Winograd was told repeatedly by the authorities that there was no evidence of animal abuse, but she and her fellow protestors kept publicly accusing my clients of committing this crime to sway public opinion against my clients and obtain signatures on their petition to shut down the pony ride and petting zoo.”