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Activists Defeat Coal Industry SLAPP Suit

Center for Food Safety & Int'l. Center for Technology Assessment
April 5th, 2001

Contact:
Joseph Mendelson or Mark Helm
(202) 547-9359 or (202) 783-7400 ext. 102

Environmental groups hailed a federal court's dismissal of a major lawsuit filed by the coal industry that had sought to silence debate on global warming and impose massive damages for the groups' global warming publicity. The lawsuit attacked the groups for running a newspaper advertisement in the New York Times on December 13, 1999, entitled "Global Warming-How Will It End?" The advertisement highlighted the causes, potential impacts and possible solutions to global warming and mentioned "coal" as a cause.

The environmental groups had denounced the lawsuit as a classic SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). SLAPPs are frivolous suits by polluters and developers used to harass citizen opponents. The lawsuit was filed last year by Western Fuels Association, an arm of the power industry that purchases hundreds of millions of dollars of coal annually. The suit named as defendants the Turning Point Project, the International Center for Technology Assessment, Friends of the Earth, Ozone Action, Earth Island Institute and the Rainforest Action Network. The lawsuit attempted to establish a new legal precedent by invoking the federal Lanham Act, which only applies to commercial speech among competitors, in a case involving only political speech.

The environmental groups learned today that the federal district court in Wyoming issued an order dismissing Western Fuels Association's lawsuit SLAPP. The opinion by Chief Judge William Downes holds that the lawsuit was improperly brought in Wyoming and that Western Fuels' had failed to show why the environmental groups, based in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, should be sued in Wyoming. Western Fuels had contended that any statement in the media connecting "coal" with global warming should be construed as an attack on the Wyoming coal industry. The court rejected this argument, holding that it "does not agree with Plaintiff's characterization that the subject of this action is coal" and instead held the case to be one about speech.

The court also rejected Western Fuels' argument that placement of the New York Times advertisement on one of the environmental group's web sites allowed the case to be filed anywhere in the country. The court held that in this emerging area of the law "an Internet advertisement alone" is not "sufficient to subject the advertiser to jurisdiction in the plaintiff's home state."

Attorney Matthew F. Pawa, of Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, P.L.L.C., Washington, D.C., who represents the environmental groups, stated he was "gratified that the court dismissed the lawsuit." Pawa further stated that "Western Fuels' lawsuit is an obvious attempt to use a court to harass and intimidate citizens concerned with global warming by subjecting them to expensive litigation in an inconvenient forum."

Attorney Reed Zars of Laramie Wyoming, who also represents the environmental groups, stated "The debate over whether the earth is flat or round did not need to be squelched by the courts. The same is true for global warming. Does it give us some idea of where the coal industry believes the global warming discussion is headed that Western Fuels filed this case to stop the discussion?"

"The environmental and human health threats of global warming are real and serious," said Dr. Brent Blackwelder, President of Friends of the Earth. "We are pleased that the court would not entertain a suit brought by polluters who want to limit the ability of citizen groups to warn the public about these risks."

Andrew Kimbrell of the Turning Point Project stated, "At a time when the Bush Administration is turning its back on global warming, the court effectively has sent a strong message that public debate on this critical issue should not be censored."

Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, P.L.L.C. represents, consumers, investors, employees, and businesses and non-profit groups in cases involving securities, antitrust, civil rights, consumer fraud, product liability and environmental matters. A copy of the court's opinion can be obtained at:

Cohen, Milstein, Hausfeld & Toll, P.L.L.
1100 New York Ave., N.W., Suite 500 West
Washington, D.C. 20005
Tel: 202-408-4600

Reed Zars, Esq.
2020 Grand Avenue, Suite 522
Laramie, WY 82070
Tel: 307-745-7979