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Advocacy Groups Vow to 'Protect the Protest' as Government and Corporations Challenge First Amendment Rights

"If you go after one of us, you're going to hear from all of us."

Several protesters were arrested last week for protesting the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana—the latest challenge to Americans' right to free speech and assembly. (Photo: @DemocracyNow!/Twitter)

With wealthy corporations, state legislatures, and the federal government finding new ways to challenge Americans' right to protest, several nonprofit groups have banded together to fight back on behalf of those facing legal jeopardy for peacefully blocking pipelines or using civil disobedience to resist other fossil projects and destructive policies.

The "Protect the Protest" initiative was established this month by 20 non-profit groups—including the ACLU, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR), and Amnesty International—in response to lawsuits commonly filed by large companies against protesters with the goal of taking advantage of the power imbalance and exhausting activists' resources, forcing them to end their actions against the corporations.

"We're at a critical inflection point for our country. And I think everyone should really be engaged and really be aware that [people are] coming after our First Amendment rights and we need to be prepared to stand up and say no." —Jana Morgan, ICARIn addition to the broader goal of "defending dissent," the coalition will put a focus on advising demonstrators and groups on how to avoid and handle that legal tactic known as a “strategic lawsuit against public participation," or SLAPP.

"One of the biggest and most important components of this is our tagline, which is: 'An attack on one is an attack on all.' So if you go after one of us, you're going to hear from all of us," Jana Morgan, director of advocacy and campaigns for ICAR, told Fast Company.

The group will also campaign in support of protest groups when they face a SLAPP lawsuit, in which companies seek large sums from groups with far fewer resources.

The initiative was begun about a month after a judge partially dismissed a lawsuit filed by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), against several climate action groups who had urged banks not to finance the project. During the months-long protests, the government as well as private security firms hired by ETP surveilled demonstrators, blocked journalists from covering them, and used water cannons and tear gas to break up the protests.

The new initiative also comes together as opponents of the the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana face felony charges for attempting to block that project.

The initiative was announced as protesters against the final portion of DAPL, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, face charges for demonstrating against the project.

Following the passage of a new state law, trespassing at a pipeline construction site has been deemed a felony in Louisiana rather than a misdemeanor. Similar laws have been passed or proposed in at least 20 other states, including Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, since Trump was elected. Since the Louisiana measure went into effect in early August, 10 people have been arrested, organizers say.

"It's a ridiculous over-criminalization of people who protest," Bill Quigley, a law professor who represents protesters, told NPR this week.

The ACLU and its Montana chapter also recently uncovered proposals by state and federal law enforcement officials to employ counter-terrorism measures ahead of planned protests against the Keystone XL Pipeline, stoking fears that demonstrators will encounter aggressive use of force by police as many did at Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota during the DAPL protests. Documents obtained by the ACLU show plans to train police in "riot-control formations" and "mass-arrest procedures."

"We're at a critical inflection point for our country," Morgan told Fast Company. "And I think everyone should really be engaged and really be aware that [people are] coming after our First Amendment rights and we need to be prepared to stand up and say no."

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