The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), on behalf of the environmental magazine, Earth First! Journal, asked a court to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the corporation behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is intended to suppress activism.
On behalf of Energy Transfer Partners and Energy Transfer Equity, Kasowitz Benson Torres, the law firm which represents President Donald Trump, attempted to sue the movement, Earth First!, in August. They also sued Greenpeace and BankTrack.
But Earth First! is not an entity that can be sued, according to CCR senior staff attorney Shayana Kadidal. It is an idea or banner for a movement, like Black Lives Matter, and has no formal membership or leadership. It is non-hierarchical and has no “regularly constituted officers,” which is the “paradox of trying to make a social movement into a defendant in a lawsuit.”
Trump’s law firm mailed a copy of the suit to the Earth First! Journal in Lake Worth, Florida, but the publication with two-to-five staff members is not Earth First!.
“We got this 187-page legal document in the mail that didn’t even mention the Journal,” Earth First! Journal editor Ryan Hartman stated. “Earth First! is a philosophy based on biocentrism, direct action, and not compromising with Earth-destroying corporations when fighting for the environment. It is an idea that for over 35 years has been followed and held dear by individuals and groups all over the world. You can’t sue an idea.”
The filing from CCR on behalf of Earth First! indicates plaintiffs’ own filings acknowledge that Earth First! is “not an organization” but rather a “philosophy” or a “movement.” Their own exhibits note Earth First! “has no structure or leadership,” and it is a “convenient banner” and anyone can “just use that name.”
Energy Transfer Partners or Energy Transfer Equity “make no attempt to explain how such a broad-based social movement, lacking formal membership or entity structure of any kind, can be amenable to suit.”
Prior attempts to sue Black Lives Matter failed because, as the Middle District of Louisiana declared, “A person cannot plausibly sue other social movements such as the Civil Rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, or the Tea Party movement.” CCR similarly contends Earth First! is a movement that cannot be sued.
There are dozens upon dozens of allegations made in the 187-page complaint [PDF] filed in August, which Kadidal called “ludicrous.” Importantly, however, they encourage a federal court to criminalize and suppress individuals for their involvement in environmental activism, which is generally protected under the First Amendment.
“Defendant Earth First! is a radical eco-terrorist group that funds, trains, and organizes acts of civil disobedience and ‘monkeywrenching,’ i.e., property destruction,” the complaint argues. It accuses Earth First! of funding the “eco-terrorist militant group Red Warrior Camp with $500,000 in seed money to fund its violent campaigns against” the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Additionally, Earth First! distributed its ‘Direct Action Manual,’ a playbook laying out techniques for vandalism and property destruction to stop energy infrastructure development, including tactics such as slashing tires, pouring sand into the gas tanks of construction equipment, and locking down construction equipment, at the protest camps.”
Energy Transfer Partners and Energy Transfer Equity further contend this manual was employed by other “eco-terrorist groups” to disrupt construction of the pipeline.
The two companies are clearly conflating acts of civil disobedience with terrorism. When it comes to acts of alleged vandalism, they are ignoring the vandalism their own companies engaged in through the construction of a pipeline on sacred indigenous land that belonged to the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Tribes. They overlook the damage that an oil pipeline, especially through any spills, will cause to the environment and how all of these acts were intended to thwart construction when a process of review was not completed properly by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
Kadidal said the attempt to sue Earth First! is “part of a trend among energy extraction and other corporations of portraying environmental activists as somehow akin to terrorists, which has parallels in the portrayal of African American activists in the Fifties and Sixties as agitators and rabble-rousers and whatever the other equivalents of terrorists for that generation were. It’s a way of delegitimizing their message by associating protest with violent terror.”
With a presidential administration that has invited fossil fuel interests to influence and undermine the work of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Interior Department, oil and gas companies like Energy Transfer Partners recognize the grand opportunity they have to launch new projects and extract more resources from lands, many of which have previously been considered sacred or enjoyed federal protection.
Lawsuits against Greenpeace or ham-handed legal attempts to sue Earth First! are a part of an escalation in efforts to suppress environmental activism, which has effectively mobilized the public against these companies’ destructive business agendas.