Sunday, June 19, 2011

Shirley Thistlethwaite has gotten the attention of the City of Memphis

Shirley Thistlethwaite (YesBiscuit) has been blogging about conditions at the Memphis Animal Shelter, a.k.a. the city pound. She has used their own published statistics, and the evidence provided by the Memphis Animal Shelter's own webcams, installed after a high-profile raid a couple of years ago.

The evidence of those webcams is bad enough. Most of the animals that come in the door at MAS are never offered for adoption. They serve out their three-day stray hold (if they are not owner surrenders), and then they are killed. I won't bother detailing all the abuses and tragedies Shirley has reported, because she's already done that, you can read about them on her blog, and that's not what this post is about.

What this post is about is the ChipIn Shirley set up to raise money to help rescue groups pull animals from the stray area and give them whatever vet care they need so that they can be adopted. This ChipIn fund has saved one dog, Ranger, and there were high hopes of rescuing more.

Note I said "were."

Shirley has received a letter from the Memphis city attorney informing her that he had researched South Carolina law (where Shirley lives), and that she is in violation of a SC state law prohibiting anyone from raising money on behalf of a charity or non-profit without written authorization from the party the funds are allegedly being raised for. The city attorney, Mr. Herman Morris, Jr., says that Memphis Animal Services has never authorized any third parties to raise money on their behalf, and therefore Ms. Thistlethwaite must cease doing so immediately, or face the dread consequence, Legal Action.

There are several problems with this, first and most obvious to anyone who read the YesBiscuit blog, that Shirley was abundantly clear about the fact that the money raised would go to rescue groups pulling animals from the Memphis Animal Shelter--not to Memphis Animal Services. There was no confusion and no room for confusion on this point. I do not believe that Mr. Morris is confused, nor whoever gave him his instructions.

This isn't about Shirley raising funds without authorization; she's not doing that and they know that. This is an attempt to stifle public criticism which is getting way too much attention for the comfort of the City of Memphis. It may astonish Mr. Morris to learn that other people can hop online and research other states' laws; it may astonish him more to learn that you don't even have to be an attorney to do that. You can look at Tennessee's Anti-SLAPP statute at the link. It would appear that Mr. Morris is most likely breaking the law of his own state.

Shirley has taken down the ChipIn for the moment, while she assesses her situation. Superficially, the bullies have gotten what they want, but I suspect that the ChipIn was merely the hook, and not the goal. Most likely, what they want to do is intimidate Shirley into shutting up about the Memphis shelter and its appalling conditions and appalling kill rate. But she's not going to shut up, and any further letters or communications with similar threats now that the ChipIn is down would be clearly and unambiguously aimed at suppressing her exercise of her First Amendment rights. You don't even have to be a lawyer, or even a librarian, to know that.

In the unlikely even that Mr. Morris or any of his taxpayer-paid staff are reading this: I am not a lawyer, and I don't play one on the internet; I am a librarian, and I have no sense of humor about people who think their comfort is more important than the First Amendment.

UPDATE: Shirley's new ChipIn is up, and it's clear enough that even Mr. Morris should not be able to delude himself that anyone will believe she's raising money for Memphis Animal services. Read about it here.