Celebrate Earth Day - and the First Amendment!
Posted: April 22, 2019|Category: Free Speech Category: Right to Petition & Protest
Happy Earth Day!
It's an appropos occasion to remember that the First Amendment can be an important ally in saving the planet. Here in Rhode Island we have handled some very important cases over the years to ensure that people can speak out on environmental causes without interference or retaliation.
Our most ground-breaking case in that regard was in 1992, when we came to the defense of North Kingstown resident Nancy Fleming. She was personally sued for defamation by a landfill owner after she wrote a letter to the Department of Environmental Management urging the facility's closure for allegedly contaminating the community’s groundwater. The defamation suit was a blatant attempt to punish Ms. Fleming for exercising her First Amendment right to petition the government and to deter others from speaking out against the site.
The defamation suit was completely frivolous. The ACLU of RI defended Ms. Fleming, and in a precedent-setting decision, the RI Supreme Court in 1996 ordered the suit dismissed. The court found that her comments were protected under a law enacted by the RI General Assembly specifically in response to her case, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the ACLU and others. That law targeted so-called SLAPP suits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) and was enacted to address the “disturbing increase in lawsuits brought primarily to chill the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and petition for the redress of grievances.”
Rhode Island was one of the first states in the country to pass a law like this, and we have used it on a number of other occasions since then to protect environmental activists from similar frivolous litigation – such as South County Sand and Gravel, Inc. v. The South Kingstown Neighborhood Congress and Global Waste Recycling, Inc. v. Mallette. In a more run-of-the-mill defense of free speech we also sued on behalf of Clean Water Action, successfully challenging a town ordinance that barred door-to-door charitable solicitation after 6 PM.
So to all those working to protect the environment, thank you. We’re here for you if you find your rights violated in the process!