The Texas-based developer of the Dakota Access oil pipeline and a Florida-based environmental publication are arguing in court over whether something billed as a social movement can be sued.
Energy Transfer Partners in August filed a lawsuit against Earth First, Greenpeace and BankTrack, alleging they disseminated false and misleading information about the $3.8 billion pipeline to move North Dakota oil to Illinois; interfered with construction; and damaged the company's reputation and finances through illegal acts. The company's lawsuit, filed in federal court in North Dakota, seeks damages that could approach $1 billion.
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Greenpeace and BankTrack have called the lawsuit meritless and asked that it be thrown out. ETP lawyers have asked U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland to declare that Earth First also has been served with the lawsuit, via Earth First Journal.
The journal has a post office box in Lake Worth, Florida. Its website bills the publication as a forum for discussion within the Earth First movement.
Journal attorney Pamela Spees argues in court documents that the two "are not one and the same." She describes Earth First as a "broad-based social movement" with no formal membership or leadership structure.
The journal "is a legal entity, unlike the ... philosophy," said Spees, an attorney with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. She also wrote that ETP has no evidence to support its contention that the journal is Earth First's "sister organization."
ETP attorneys note that the journal publishes Earth First's manual, "instructing members on how to engage in precisely the type of conduct at issue in this action."
Earth First "should not be permitted to hide behind its purported lack of a formal organizational structure and membership to evade service and avoid responding to the claims against it," company attorneys write.
Attorneys for the other two defendants, Netherlands and U.S.-based Greenpeace and Netherlands-based BankTrack, maintain that the lawsuit is an attack on free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union and five other human rights, justice and philanthropic groups on Monday filed court documents backing the defendants and urging the case be dismissed.
"Under ETP's theories, ordinary political speech that runs counter to a corporation's business interests could expose the speaker to enormous, unwarranted liability," attorneys for the groups wrote.
ETP has told The Associated Press that it has an obligation to its shareholders, partners and stakeholders to pursue claims against the environmental groups.
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