Washington Watch: A SLAPP in the Face

Washington Watch: A SLAPP in the Face

Some U.S. House members have picked a new way to intimidate public critics of their anti-environmental policies.

One long-standing method for trying to scare opponents away from challenging pollution has been to sue them for alleged damages to the polluting company itself. This is the technique known as a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) suit.

Now, apparently inspired by the ongoing investigation of Trump campaign collusion with the Russian government, some pro-Trump U.S. House members are investigating three national citizen environmental groups. Their claim is that the groups may be acting as “agents” of a foreign government without registering as such.

The groups under review are the World Resources Institute, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In each case, the organizations have taken pro-environment positions with which the Trump Administration disagrees, but some other governments do.

The flaw in the hostile Congress members’ reasoning is obvious. Sharing a policy position with a third party does not mean that you are working for that party, especially when the policy position reflects your own long-held, consistently advocated goals.

International law experts confirm that simply sharing a policy position—such as advocating for action to control greenhouse gases and limit climate change—does not legally mean that a group is an “agent” of the governments who hold the same position. (If that were the case, a great many U.S. states and local governments would be “agents” of those same foreign governments.)

NRDC, one of the most effective national citizen environmental legal groups, has taken a relatively low-key approach to its response. It has answered some of the preliminary questions from two top Republican members of the House Natural Resources Committee. The Center for Biological Diversity, which focuses on endangered species, was less measured. Its executive director bluntly called the investigation “a clumsy, McCarthyite attempt” to intimidate them.

No serious legal analyst is suggesting that the “investigations” here will go anywhere, legally speaking. However, the fact that the claims have been raised at all is further evidence of the lengths to which anti-environmental forces in Congress are prepared to go in their campaign to silence critics of their policies.

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