CINCINNATI — A judge refused to dismiss burglary charges Wednesday against nine Greenpeace activists who staged an eye-catching protest involving a zip-lining tiger at Procter & Gamble's headquarters in downtown Cincinnati.
Hamilton County Judge Robert Winkler rejected arguments from defense attorneys that the activists were simply exercising their free speech rights when they slipped past P&G's security on March 4 and used a zip line to unfurl giant banners from the consumer products company's two towers as a helicopter filmed them.
They were protesting P&G's use of palm oil, saying the oil is tied to tropical forest destruction in Indonesia. One of them was dressed as a tiger to represent endangered species that live in the rainforest.
The activists, who all live out-of-state, were arrested on charges of burglary and vandalism and spent one night in jail before being released the next day on $50,000 bond each. They have pleaded not guilty.
Attorneys for the activists argued in court Wednesday that the burglary charges against them should be dismissed, saying that they were engaging in constitutionally protected political speech.
Prosecutors argued that regardless of their political message, the activists committed crimes and caused damage in the way they conveyed their message.
Authorities have said property damage, including broken window locks, totaled some $17,000. At the time of a grand jury indictment, Prosecutor Joe Deters said 24 police officers and two companies of firefighters were diverted to the protest.
"The First Amendment does not operate to permit defendants to damage or tamper with private property in order to convey their message," according to a recent court filing by the prosecution.
Louis Sirkin, a First Amendment attorney who represents the activists, said he was disappointed in Winkler's decision but that he's confident a jury will find the protesters not guilty of burglary since nothing was stolen.
"To say they're burglars is really hard for me to comprehend," Sirkin said. "They wanted to send out a message and they did, and that's what America is all about."
He said the activists face two to eight years in prison if convicted of the burglary charges.
Shortly after their arrest, a judge rebuked the activists for what he called a dangerous and ill-advised stunt.
Local authorities were stunned by the breach at the headquarters of the maker of such best-selling global brands as Pampers diapers, Tide detergent and Gillette shavers. Cincinnati's police chief urged downtown businesses to review their security plans.
Palm oil is commonly used in shampoo, cosmetics and other products. P&G announced April 8 that it has adopted a "no-deforestation" policy for its palm oil supply and that would establish traceability of supplies by 2015. Greenpeace called P&G's announcement a huge step in protecting rainforests, while saying much work needs to be done.