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Fighting for the cause of liberty

By Steven Wise

“This issue isn’t going away. Many people suspect that animal rights will be the big civil rights issue of the rest of the 21st century. And I’m one of them.” – Professor Douglas O. Linder, the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law

The Teaching Company offers hundred of “Great Courses,” each of which is comprised of a series of college-level lectures on an important topic presented by some of the most accomplished and engaging professors in the United States. The latest “Great Course,” entitled “Liberty on Trial in America: Cases That Defined Freedom,” offers the opportunity to “learn not only about cases in which liberty claims were vindicated, but also those in which they were denied. Sometimes those cases that upheld the status quo seem most clearly unjust by today’s standards, and, occasionally, even by the standards of the times.”

These “freedom lectures” discuss some of American history’s most important legal struggles over the meaning of liberty and who is entitled to it. They include Anne Hutchinson’s trial for religious heresy; the trial over whether the New York printer, John Peter Zenger, could be jailed for seditious libel for publishing the truth about governmental misdeeds; whether the escaped slave Anthony Burns could be frogmarched to the Boston docks and forcibly returned to southern slavery under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; whether Susan B. Anthony could be jailed for the crime of voting while female; whether John Scopes’ teaching of the scientific truth of evolution in a public school justified his criminal conviction; whether Fred Korematsu’s Japanese-American heritage was sufficient to imprison him in a concentration camp during World War II; whether Jane Roe could have an abortion because she wanted one; whether comedian Lenny Bruce could say what he wished on stage; whether a white man, Richard Loving, could marry the black woman he loved, Mildred Jeter; whether Homer Plessy could sit where he wished on a train; whether same sex couples could marry, and more.

The final lecture, number 24, focuses on the cases that considered whether Tommy, a captive chimpanzee and the Nonhuman Rights Project’s first client, was entitled to a common law writ of habeas corpus and release from the cage in which he had been imprisoned and into a sanctuary.

Since 2013 the Nonhuman Rights Project has fought to gain the fundamental legal right to bodily liberty in New  York State for at least some nonhuman animals, first for chimpanzees, then for elephants. A major reason we chose individuals from these species is because common law judges supremely value autonomy, which is the ability to behave in a self-determined way based on one’s own freedom of choice. For example, in 1986, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, was required to decide whether a human being who had been committed to a mental institution could refuse anti-psychotic medications. Holding he could, the court stated that “(i)n our system of a free government, where notions of individual autonomy and free choice are cherished, it is the individual who must have the final say in respect to decisions regarding his medical treatment in order to insure that the greatest possible protection is accorded his autonomy and freedom from unwanted interference with the furtherance of his own desires.” We couldn’t say it better.

The NhRP takes courts at their word about the supreme importance of autonomy and free choice. That is why we have produced affidavits from the world’s most-respected chimpanzee and elephant researchers that provide detailed facts that support our claims that chimpanzees and elephants are autonomous beings. We have never claimed that autonomy is necessary for legal rights, just that the existence of autonomy is a sufficient reason to possess the legal right to bodily liberty that protects it.  In six years no defendant has even tried to contest a single one of those scientific facts.

Each lawsuit the NhRP has filed on behalf of a chimpanzee or elephant prisoner has alleged that our client is autonomous and that she has been imprisoned against her will and has therefore been deprived of her autonomy. We then demand that the court issue a writ of habeas corpus or its equivalent to allow us to challenge the legality of her imprisonment. The remedy for her illegal imprisonment is always their bodily liberty—her freedom to the greatest extent we can offered it on a continent that is not her natural habitat.

In his closing argument, John Peter Zenger’s attorney, William Hamilton, reminded the jury that they were deciding “not the case of one poor printer, but the cause of liberty.” The jury acquitted Zenger in ten minutes. On January 6, 2020, when we were litigating the last three hours of thirteen hours of argument on behalf of Happy—an Asian elephant the Bronx Zoo has imprisoned on one acre of land for over forty years—we reminded Bronx Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. Tuitt that she, too, is deciding not “the case of one poor elephant but the cause of liberty.”

The NhRP currently has filed habeas corpus cases on behalf of imprisoned elephants in Connecticut and New York and will be filing further cases on behalf of nonhuman animals in California and Colorado in 2020. We will continue to assist lawyers around the world in demanding the fundamental legal right to bodily liberty for at least some nonhuman animals in other countries, among them Israel, Canada, and India.  That is what we do in court: place “Liberty on Trial“ as we continue to demand that judges once again redefine freedom.

To purchase “Liberty on Trial in America: Cases That Defined Freedom,” visit this page. To read Douglas O. Linder’s analysis of our nonhuman animal rights litigation, visit this page. For the most recent news about chimpanzees Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo, visit this page. To learn more about our litigation and our clients, visit this page.

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