Ad executive sues city over Soft Side animal abuse campaign

The advertising executive behind the "Show Your Soft Side" anti-animal abuse campaign sued the city Tuesday in federal court, alleging that city officials are trying to take ownership of her idea, jeopardizing her plans to expand it to other cities.

In the federal complaint, Sande Riesett alleged that city lawyers threatened to sue her over the ownership of the campaign's slogans. The complaint asks a federal judge to declare that Riesett is the sole owner of the campaign. The suit does not ask for monetary damages.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the campaign grew out of a city commission on animal abuse.

"The suit lacks merit and will be firmly defended by the law department," O'Doherty said. "Hopefully, this is not an effort to privatize and monetize a city public asset."

Launched in fall 2011, the campaign features billboard ads of well-known figures with tough outer appearances and their cuddlier pets alongside the slogan "Only a punk would hurt a cat or dog." The ads have featured Ravens player Torrey Smith, Orioles player Adam Jones, a Baltimore police officer and mixed martial arts fighter John Rallo.

Riesett, who owns Lutherville-based Outlaw Advertising, developed the campaign after the high-profile 2009 burning of Phoenix the pit bull in West Baltimore. Now she wants to license the idea to other cities, according to the federal complaint, but argues she would not be able to do that if her ownership of it was in dispute.

The campaign was backed by the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, and the city approached Riesett about putting its logo on the ads, according to the complaint.

"At no time did Riesett convey to the City of Baltimore or the Commission, any rights of ownership in the Campaign," her lawyers wrote.

Riesett worked with friends to wrangle the celebrities featured in the images and media companies to get the ads displayed for free. Riesett raised funds and donated her own money to get the campaign going, according to the court filing.

James B. Astrachan, Riesett's attorney, said she was not making any money from "Show Your Soft Side" and called the suit "a matter of principle."

"Why would she allow the city to take ownership of something she had created?" he added. "She's not going to let somebody wrestle it from her."

A city news release announcing the campaign credited Riesett with "organizing" it, but also cast it as the work of the animal abuse group.

"With this new campaign, the Mayor's Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission hopes to change the mindset of young people in Baltimore who view the maiming and torturing of defenseless dogs and cats as a sign of toughness," the release reads.

Riesett had agreed to license the slogans to the city indefinitely and for free, according to a post on the campaign's Facebook page, but the city continued to assert that it owned them outright.

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