Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

Benjamin Eaton, Mary B. Schaeffer, Esther Calhoun, and Ellis B. Long were sued by a corporate landfill owner for $30 million after speaking out against the hazardous dump on Facebook. (Photo: ACLU)

These Four People Were Sued for $30 Million for Trying to Stop a Toxic Landfill

'The Constitution prevents companies from using lawsuits to silence their critics,' says ACLU

Deirdre Fulton

After being sued for $30 million by a corporate landfill owner for "speaking their truth in order to protect their community," four residents of Uniontown, Alabama—a poor, predominantly Black town with a median per capita income of around $8,000—are fighting back. 

On Thursday, the ACLU asked a federal court to dismiss the defamation lawsuit against Esther Calhoun, Benjamin Eaton, Ellis B. Long, and Mary B. Schaeffer—all members of the community group Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice.

The defendants are being sued by Georgia-based Green Group Holdings for speaking out against the polluting, hazardous coal ash that the company keeps in a landfill in a residential area—a "sprawling dump" that stands as a symbol of racial and environmental injustice. 

According to AL.com:

The lawsuit alleges that the Black Belt group used its web site and Facebook page "in a false and malicious manner," and that the group's president Esther Calhoun and vice president Benjamin Eaton made "knowingly false" statements to the media.

"The lawsuit focuses on comments made by visitors to the group's Facebook page relating to controversies over the landfill's activities near an old cemetery and accusations that the facility is polluting the community and oppressing local residents," Sue Sturgis wrote in April for Facing South.

Among the comments the lawsuit calls "false and defamatory" are these remarks by the group's president, Calhoun (the bold text is the Green Group Holdings' own, showing what the company objects to):

Its a landfill, its a tall mountain of coal ash and it has affected us. It affected our everyday life. It really has done a lot to our freedom. Its another impact of slavery. ...Cause we are in a black residence, things change? And you can't walk outside. And you can not breathe. I mean, you are in like prison. I mean, its like all your freedom is gone. As a black woman, our voices are not heard. EPA hasn't listened and [Alabama Department of Environmental Management] has not listened. Whether you are white or black, rich or poor, it should still matter and we all should have the right to clean air and clean water. I want to see EPA do their job.

In its filing on Thursday, the ACLU argues that the lawsuit "involves speech at the very core of the First Amendment," said Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

"No one should have to face a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit just for engaging in heartfelt community advocacy," Rowland said. "All Americans have a right to speak out against hazardous substances being dumped in their home towns, and the Constitution prevents companies from using lawsuits to silence their critics."

The ACLU reports that before filing the defamation suit, a lawyer for Green Group Holdings provided the defendants with a list of demands in exchange for not suing.

"Not only have Black people been expected to endure this kind of systematic racial and environmental injustice throughout our nation's history, they are expected to bear it silently or be subjected to harsh consequences just for advocating for their health and community."
—Dennis Parker, ACLU

That so-called "settlement proposal" would have required a full apology from each defendant; access to the group's future social media postings; and extensive details about Black Belt Citizens' membership, advocacy, and communications with other environmental groups, among other things. The proposal also would have required each of the defendants to withdraw as complainants in a federal civil rights complaint (pdf) filed with the EPA. 

The defendants scoffed at the offer.

"Not only have Black people been expected to endure this kind of systematic racial and environmental injustice throughout our nation's history, they are expected to bear it silently or be subjected to harsh consequences just for advocating for their health and community," said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "We want to ensure that our clients don't have to face that choice in Uniontown."

Indeed, said Calhoun on Thursday: "State officials would never have allowed the landfill to be here if we were a rich, white neighborhood. They put it here because we're a poor, Black community and they thought we wouldn't fight back. But we are fighting back and we're not afraid to make our voices heard."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

World Leaders Must Commit to End Covid-19 Patents: Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

Decrying the "brutally unequal global rollout of Covid-19 vaccines," Yunus wrote that "there is still time for world leaders to say never again."

Andrea Germanos ·


Addressing Crisis 'Existentially Imperiling' Its People, Vanuatu Declares Climate Emergency

"We are in danger now, not just in the future," said Prime Minister Bob Loughman.

Andrea Germanos ·


'Grotesque': Disgust as Trump Reads Names of Uvalde Victims at NRA Convention

Former President Donald Trump and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas were among those pushing a "good guys with guns" theory that "utterly failed" the latest victims of a mass shooting.

Andrea Germanos ·


Wall Street-Funded Democrat PAC to Spend $1 Million in Bid to Unseat Tlaib: Report

"Imagine spending $1 million to oust Rashida Tlaib instead of organizing in Detroit to make sure Michigan goes blue," quipped one progressive group.

Brett Wilkins ·


Parents Demand Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty 'For the Sake of the Children'

"We cannot remain silent as the fossil fuel industry and world leaders rob our children of a livable future," parents from 32 nations wrote in an open letter.

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo