The ‘Protect the Protest’ task force is targeting what it says are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPP, which use legal action and the threat of financial risk to deter people and groups from speaking out against something they oppose.The twenty environmental and civil liberties groups say the lawsuits are aimed at limiting free speech and silencing critics.
Katie Redford, co-founder and director of EarthRights International, says ‘we know from our own experience that this legal bullying tactic will work if it's not shut down.’ The effort is to include billboard advertisements, training sessions for journalists and nonprofits, panel discussions and rallies outside the corporate offices of companies the groups believe use such lawsuits. Greenpeace and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which also is involved in helping defend against that lawsuit, are among the Protect the Protest participants. One of the campaigns is against Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners, a company that built the Dakota Access oil pipeline and sued Greenpeace, Earth First and BankTrack for up to $1 billion for allegedly working to undermine the $3.8 billion project to move North Dakota oil to a shipping point in Illinois. The company's lawsuit filed a year ago alleges the environmental groups disseminated false and misleading information about the project and interfered with its construction. ETP maintains that the groups' actions interfered with its business, facilitated crimes and acts of terrorism, incited violence, targeted financial institutions that backed the project, and violated defamation and racketeering laws.
The groups maintained the lawsuit was an attack on free speech. US district judge Billy Roy Wilson recently dismissed both BankTrack and Earth First as defendants, explaining ETP failed to make a case that Earth First is an entity that can be sued, and that BankTrack's actions in imploring banks not to fund the pipeline did not amount to radical ecoterrorism. EarthRights International helped defend BankTrack, assistance that Redford said exemplifies the type of collective effort the task force will bring. Judge Wilson also ordered ETP to clarify its claims against Greenpeace, and has given that group until September 4 to file its response to ETP's amended complaint. Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard on Tuesday said a $300 million lawsuit filed against the group by the Canadian timber industry over its forest protection advocacy is another example of the type of lawsuits the task force hopes to battle. Ms Leonard said, ‘a healthy democracy is a precondition for a healthy environment, and we can't have a healthy democracy without informed, engaged public dissent.’