Civil libertarians applauded Wednesday as a U.S. congressional committee held a hearing to “examine how the fossil fuel industry is weaponizing the law to stifle First Amendment-protected speech” and thwart climate action.
“Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have enacted commonsense anti-SLAPP legislation.”
At issue during the hearing were strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which are described by one advocacy group as “an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing criticism through expensive, baseless legal proceedings.”
Democratic lawmakers, activists, and community leaders explained during the hearing how the fossil fuel industry “uses SLAPPs to target environmental activists and nonprofits to deter them from speaking out against proposed fossil fuel pipelines and other projects that contribute to climate change.”
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, announced plans to introduce legislation to deter SLAPPs.
“Wealthy and powerful corporate entities are… dragging citizens and public interest opponents through meritless but protracted and expensive litigation to expose anyone who dares stand up to them to financial and personal ruin,” Raskin said during his opening remarks.
“It is crucial that Congress protect the rights of American citizens and civic groups to engage in lawful political protest and organizing without being subjected to ruinously expensive and meritless retaliatory litigation,” he added.
Anne White Hat, a Sicangu Lakota Indigenous woman who has been involved in anti-fossil fuel struggles from Standing Rock to Louisiana, is one of 16 activists who faced up to five years in prison for their activism against the Bayou Bridge pipeline.
Last year, a local district attorney threw out the charges against the activists and vowed to never prosecute them under the state’s critical infrastructure law, a tool used by oil-producing states like Texas and Oklahoma to deter protests.
White Hat described the fear of constantly “wondering if they’re gonna come knocking on the door to take me to jail and having to make plans for my children.”
“In terms of just being out there and going out, it really is a chilling effect on us as frontline organizers,” she added. “It also impacts other First Amendment rights like freedom of religion. One of the gentlemen involved in our lawsuit was denied the right to travel to go to practice his religious activities.”
On Monday, Common Dreams reported that the fossil fuel industry has targeted more than 150 climate activists and community leaders in recent years with SLAPPs lawsuits and other forms of “judicial harassment,” according to a report published by the legal advocacy group EarthRights International.
The report noted that public officials including Democratic Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke—who was sued for defamation earlier this year by Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren over criticism of the company’s pipeline profits—have been targeted, along with frontline climate campaigners.
For activists caught up in SLAPP litigation, legal costs can be crushing for individuals and small groups as cases drag on for years.
“More than six years from when the first SLAPP was filed against us, [we are] still forced to invest time and resources into these legal battles that otherwise would have been used to protect communities and the environment from toxic pollution and the existential threat of climate change,” Greenpeace general counsel Deepa Padmanabha said at Wednesday’s hearing.
Padmanabha and others who testified Wednesday called on Congress to pass federal anti-SLAPP laws to prevent First Amendment abuses and protect the rights of people and advocacy groups to participate in the democratic process.
“Now is a critical moment for Congress to act and introduce federal anti-SLAPP legislation,” she asserted. “Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have enacted commonsense anti-SLAPP legislation, and all were introduced in a bipartisan or nonpartisan fashion.”
“While federal legislation might not put an end to all SLAPPs,” added Padmanabha, “it would be a significant step towards becoming a nation of justice where our fundamental right to speak truth to power is protected.”