Vegans file lawsuit over surveillance at ham store

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Vegans Caitlin Childs and Christopher Freeman
were arrested after a protest at a HoneyBaked Ham store

They don't eat ham. And they don't like to be spied on, either.

The story begins outside a HoneyBaked Ham store on Buford Highway just before Christmas 2003.

That day, two vegans vegetarians who eat only plants and plant products were wrapping up an animal cruelty protest with a handful of other vegans when they noticed a man in a CVS pharmacy parking lot taking pictures of them.

Later, they would learn that the man was an undercover homeland security detective, according to a federal lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia filed Thursday on the vegans' behalf.

The lawsuit, in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, charges that the detective, who was working for DeKalb County's Homeland Security Division, and a county police officer subjected Caitlin Childs and Christopher Freeman to false imprisonment, false arrest and harassment and violated their constitutional rights.

After the ham protest, Childs and Freeman walked over to the mysterious man's car and wrote down his license plate number. When they drove off, they noticed the car following them.

They pulled into a parking lot at a Mexican restaurant. The car and a police car pulled in behind them. The vegans were ordered out of their car and told to hand over the piece of paper with the tag number on it. Childs refused and was handcuffed and searched. She and Freeman were arrested for disorderly conduct and jailed.

They were released, but the piece of paper and Childs' house keys weren't returned, the lawsuit says.

"I couldn't believe that all of it was happening," Freeman, now 36, said Thursday. "We were out there doing educational outreach on a topic that is important to us." At the event, "we were handing out leaflets on alternatives to pork," he said.

Childs, now 22, said they brought suit because "this really could happen to anyone who practices their free speech in the kind of time we're living in. It's really scary."

Childs and Freeman live in East Atlanta. They are suing DeKalb County, Detective D.A. Gorman and an officer identified as K.A. Moffit. The newspaper could not reach the officers Thursday, and county officials wouldn't comment.

In court, Childs hopes to hold government officials "accountable." "Citizens aren't going to allow you to bully us and harass us and take away our rights," she said. "We will fight back."

A Homeland Security report on the incident, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got from the ACLU of Georgia, says Gorman told Childs and Freeman he was a police detective "instructed to monitor and picture the protest."

Gorman told Childs he was driving an undercover vehicle and didn't want the tag number passed around. The report said the two vegans were "hostile, uncooperative and boisterous towards the officers."

The county's Homeland Security Division, within the DeKalb Police Department, was formed after the County Commission decided in October 2001 to hire a homeland security director. The move was prompted by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Gerry Weber, legal director at the ACLU of Georgia and a lead attorney in the lawsuit, said the case "illustrates the overreaching of homeland security by monitoring clearly peaceful protesters. This is a poor allocation of resources and chills free speech."

Weber said he had no idea why the protesters were under surveillance. "One couldn't imagine a less threatening image than vegan protesters in front of a HoneyBaked Ham," he said.

Deputy Chief Moses Ector, DeKalb's commander of homeland security, referred a reporter to the chief public information officer for DeKalb County police, who said he could not comment on a pending lawsuit.

Acting county attorney Viviane Ernstes did not return phone calls seeking comment. Burke Brennan, spokesman for the county, said, "DeKalb County has a strict policy preventing us from discussing pending litigation."

In addition to the lawsuit, the state ACLU is seeking any law enforcement surveillance files on Childs and Freeman.

ACLU affiliates in 15 other states have filed similar requests with the FBI on behalf of more than 100 groups and individuals, according to an ACLU news release, "as part of a nationwide effort to expose unlawful domestic spying."

Said Childs, "They're using security and the idea of terrorism, which is such a hot word and scares people, to silence people who have unpopular beliefs."