Corporations are trying to cancel free speech — here’s how

Buildings are burning, rail lines are crashing, and major cities have contaminated water supplies. No, this isn’t the plot of the latest apocalypse flick or Netflix show – it’s the reality of life for Americans whose health and safety continue to be threatened by corporate greed. Since the beginning of this year, more than thirty incidents of chemical spills have been recorded by the Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, and it is only May. 

And while corporate greed threatening the lives of everyday citizens is a story as old as time, the story you may not have heard is how complaining about these threats can now land you in court. Corporations are silencing our fellow Americans for speaking out against pipelines and toxic pollution by abusing our legal system to silence dissent.

Being able to speak out on these issues–on social media, or out loud at a protest–is the quintessential American right. Free speech separates us from authoritarian countries where you can’t push back on those in power to demand better for your community. Yet corporations are using their outsized wealth, resources and armies of lawyers to follow the playbook of authoritarian regimes and silence their critics.

The fossil fuel industry has used SLAPPs to target more than 150 people and organizations over the past 10 years. Over 50 have been targeted in the last five years alone.

Ironically, the very companies that fought relentlessly in the courts for their First Amendment rights are now using the judicial system to deny those same rights to ordinary people, all to protect their profits. 

They do so via something called Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs). These lawsuits aren’t brought in good faith but are explicitly designed to bury their targets in litigation costs, sue them into silence or bankruptcy, and intimidate everyone watching along the way.  

Corporations are increasingly turning to this type of judicial bullying. According to EarthRights International, the fossil fuel industry has used SLAPPs to target more than 150 people and organizations over the past 10 years. Over 50 have been targeted in the last five years alone. Let this sink in: complaining about a corporation on the internet, for example, could land you in court.  

As the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, I am all too familiar with this pernicious tactic. Just recently, we were victorious in a seven-year SLAPP suit battle, but the threat of SLAPPs still looms large, as we face another lawsuit from a large corporation seeking to silence our work uplifting the voices of the movement.

But Greenpeace is lucky. We have our own lawyers committed to our defense and supporters who understand what’s at stake if we lose these cases. But the reality is that an individual or organization with fewer resources would not be able to mount the legal fight we have been forced to endure while these cases drag on for years. There are many SLAPP stories we will never hear because merely filing the suit–or even the threat of a lawsuit–was enough to scare people into silence.

We will not stand by and allow these voices to be shut down. Greenpeace stands in solidarity with the people deeply affected by the disasters these corporations have made. We work in communities all across America to try to prevent them from happening in the first place. So we will keep fighting these lawsuits because we have to if we want to continue to do our work. We also want to make sure that every single person and concerned organization has the right to fiercely criticize those who would compromise their health and safety–without fear of a corporate sledgehammer in the form of a SLAPP suit.

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Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have enacted anti-SLAPP laws. All were non-controversial and passed with bipartisan support. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, Americans agree that corporate bullying is unacceptable.  

We need to ensure we are all protected from corporate litigation designed purely to harass and intimidate. Congress should enact bi-partisan legislation like the Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) Protection Act, introduced by Representative Jaime Raskin last session. By doing so, we can protect the rights of every single person and concerned organization speaking truth to power to those who compromise our health and safety.

Corporations may have money and armies of lawyers, but we have the people. Together we can build a system where no one has to fear corporate censorship in the form of a SLAPP suit. Time is of the essence, and as recent events make clear, our lives may well depend on it. 

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