Is calling kennel a “puppy mill” protected opinion under the First Amendment? The Missouri Supreme Court will decide in upcoming Humane Society case

On the heels of Missourians voting on the “Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act,” the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization, published a Report titled “Missouri’s Dirty Dozen: A report on some of the worst puppy mills in Missouri.” The Report, released October 5, 2010, listed Smith’s Kennel on the “Dirty Dozen,” citing numerous U.S. Department of Agriculture violations involving unsanitary conditions, exposure of dogs to extreme temperatures without adequate shelter, injured and bleeding dogs, and a bevy of other health hazards. Smith’s Kennel has not denied the veracity of these violations.

Responding to this Report and a subsequent press release, summary, and updated Report, Mary Ann Smith, owner of Smith’s Kennel, sued the Humane Society for defamation and false light in Missouri state court. The Humane Society filed a motion to dismiss, arguing its statements were constitutionally protected non-actionable opinion. The trial court agreed, granting the Humane Society’s motion to dismiss. However, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the trial court’s decision. Upon remand, the Defendants transferred the case to the Missouri Supreme Court.

On Feb. 4, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), with a coalition of 22 media organizations, filed an amicus brief with the Missouri Supreme Court. RCFP had the assistance of attorney Joseph E. Martineau of Lewis Rice and the support of organizations such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star, Council of Better Business Bureaus, BuzzFeed, Gannett Co., and the E.W. Scripps Company.

In our brief, amici urge the Missouri Supreme Court to find the statements are constitutionally protected opinion and affirm the trial court’s dismissal. Our argument centers around the following premise:

The Humane Society’s statements are protected opinion because they are based on disclosed, truthful facts and are core political speech.

Furthermore, we contend that broadly protecting statements of opinion preserves the vitality of the marketplace of ideas and encourages speakers to infuse valuable information into the public sphere.

To answer the question posed above: Is calling a kennel a ‘puppy mill’ protected opinion under the First Amendment? We firmly believe so.

The Missouri Supreme Court will have the final say. Oral arguments are scheduled for March 2, 2016.

To read RCFP’s amicus brief in Smith v. Humane Society, click here.



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