FARMINGTON, Utah --The cost of free speech? It's $50 according to a pair of animal rights activists facing charges after failing to get a permit for a series of protests outside Lagoon amusement park and its headquarters in Farmington.
"This country was founded on the notion that we should have the right to speak our minds when we want," said Jeremy Beckham, one of the protesters cited. "There's no such thing as an opinion tax in this country. I think it's absolutely outrageous that Farmington City is requiring people to pay $50 and get a liability insurance policy just to express their opinion on a public sidewalk."
Court documents show it's a Class B Misdemeanor to, "...participate in any advanced, planned free speech expression activity without first obtaining a permit for the event."
"That is very scary to me, to think of spending six months in jail, however: The animals at Lagoon are basically spending a life sentence without parole," said Lexie Levitt, the other protester facing charges.
She and Beckham said the animals inside Lagoon are kept behind chain link fences and live on concrete floors.
"I can say with great confidence the animals at Lagoon are very well treated, very well cared for, and are content and happy," said Adam Leishman, a Lagoon Spokesman.
As to the charges for the protesters, Leisman said, "As far as we're concerned, this is between those individuals and the city of Farmington."
Farmington Police Chief Wayne Hansen acknowledges the protest group was originally told the $50 fee for the permit would not be waived. After that, he said he reached out via email, certified letter and calls to try to convince the group to come into the city to talk about the protest.
"The ordinance is there just to balance people's rights to protest and do what they want to do against needs to manage public safety and public thoroughfares," Hansen said.
Hansen said his police officers do not actively search out protests, but do respond to complaints.
"Like anything else, if it's brought to our attention we're duty-bound to follow through and investigate and enforce the laws that are on the books," he said.
On July 18, Hansen said his department got a call about a protest outside the amusement park.
"We were called by Lagoon," he said.
Levitt was identified at that protest among many others and eventually cited. Beckham's charges come from a protest two days prior, outside of Lagoon's corporate headquarters.
"We only notify police when they are on Lagoon property," said Adam Leishman, Lagoon's spokesman. But he admitted the park's director of safety and security may have called even if the protesters were on public property if there was a concern over their interference with traffic.
"It's our guess that this ordinance is also being applied in a discriminatory manner," Beckham said. "It's no secret that Lagoon is one of the largest employers in Farmington, I'm sure they have some political pull."
The ACLU of Utah calls blanket policies by a city that create a set fee for a protest permit a challenge to First Amendment rights, but they said merely requiring notice does not necessarily violate freedom of speech.