SLAPP Suits are Back!

Ideas and Issues

Little Rock   SLAPP suits used to be so common that we had to routinely include discussion of their likelihood in campaign training sessions. SLAP stood for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. They were a huge pain in the pocketbook!

Of course such suits never went away as a tool of corporations and conservatives to achieve exactly what the words say, an effort to stifle citizen action, protest, and participation. The premise was less on the law or its merits than the courtroom equivalent of schoolyard bullying since almost by definition big companies have canyon deep pockets while most nonprofits are scrapping by from month to month, paycheck to paycheck. SLAPP suits are hard for companies to actually win, but they can drain the coffers of the activist or nonprofit organization, and, perhaps more importantly for the initiator, they can intimidate others from jumping into the fray or doing something similar. Freedom of speech and libel laws being what they are in the United States, they provide some real firewalls, but the pain inflected can be brutal and lethal.

I mention all of this because of a small piece in the Wall Street Journal noting that the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, that is behind the Dakota Access Pipeline that galvanized the country last fall and triggered the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters in a long encampment and protest, has filed a SLAPP suit against Greenpeace and other environmental groups centering on those events. They are claiming $300 million in damages based on delays in the final approval of the pipeline and other actions. As disturbingly, they filed under the Racketeering and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO as it is known, that also allows for a tripling of damages if they are successful, making all of this almost a billion dollar headache for Greenpeace and its allies.

This is grist for the mill in this work, but in another note the Journal reporter followed the cookie trail back to Kasowitz, Benson Torres, the law firm that filed this suit and an earlier suit last year against Greenpeace as well on behalf of multinational forestry company Resolute Forest Products. Chillingly, they note: “One of the law firm’s founders, Marc Kasowitz, served as Trump’s personal lawyer.” I was schooled years ago that organizers always needed to look for the “fine hand” behind the story, making it uncomfortable to believe that there is now a green light that has flashed on once again beckoning perhaps from the ever litigious President in the White House.

In recent years more of the efforts to scuttle citizen action and protests has been devious reputational attacks meant to damage organizations and frighten supporters and donors, but the word is obviously being passed around the dark hallways of corporations and their law firms that these costly, frivolous SLAP suits are worth bringing to the forefront again.