Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

water protectors

A federal court in North Dakota recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by an energy company against Greenpeace and individual protesters. (Photo: Speak Freely/ACLU)

The Dakota Access Pipeline Company Is Abusing the Judicial System to Silence Dissent

Protesters and advocacy groups have the right to freely and vigorously criticize their opponents, even when their speech threatens to subvert corporate interests

In a win for free speech, a federal court in North Dakota recently dismissed a baseless $900 million lawsuit brought by the Dakota Access Pipeline company against Greenpeace and a number of individual protesters. The company should have learned its lesson. Instead, it refiled the case in state court.

These cases offer a grim reminder of our responsibility to hold companies accountable when they abuse the judicial system with stunt litigation transparently designed to intimidate and bankrupt their critics.

These meritless cases are textbook examples of "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation," or SLAPPs. This tactic is increasingly used by corporations to silence critics with expensive legal actions.

The pipeline company, Energy Transfer LP, filed the lawsuit in 2017 against Greenpeace organizations and others, including individual Standing Rock protesters. It relied on defamation law and the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a federal statute designed to prosecute mob activity.

The company alleged that Greenpeace and the other defendants, in criticizing the pipeline’s potential environmental and cultural damage to the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, engaged in a criminal network of fraud and misinformation. The 231-page complaint described the defendants as a "network of not-for-profits and rogue eco-terrorist groups."

The lawsuit rested on two theories, neither of which passed muster in federal court. First, the complaint argued that Greenpeace and the other defendants were engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the public and defame the company. Second, it claimed that the defendants were engaged in an "illegal Enterprise" targeting the company and should therefore be held liable for any illegal actions committed by those who simply shared a common opposition to the pipeline. 

These accusations, wild as they seem, would set a dangerous precedent if accepted: Not only might a different decision bankrupt defendants like Greenpeace—due to both litigation expenses and damages—and destroy the lives of the Standing Rock activists, but it could also erode the right of nonprofit organizations to speak out against corporate actions. Further, acceptance of the company's legal arguments would make any advocacy group potentially liable for the conduct of its supporters and fellow travelers, even without any evidence of direct coordination.

The ACLU, along with a coalition of public interest groups, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Greenpeace and its partners and the individual Standing Rock protesters. We argued that Energy Transfer's claims violate the First Amendment, which prohibits companies from suing critics out of existence just because their message is anathema to the corporate interests of the plaintiff. We also told the court that the RICO Act can't be manipulated and exploited to suppress constitutionally protected speech.

The judge agreed and dismissed the case. His order concluded that "donating to people whose cause you support does not create a RICO enterprise," and that "posting articles written by people with similar beliefs does not create a RICO enterprise." The opinion chided the company for its hyperbolic complaint and vindicated the activists and organizations that sought to speak out on matters of serious public concern.

Last week, in a pigheaded display of its commitment to dragging Greenpeace, its partners, and the Standing Rock protesters through an expensive and unjustified lawsuit for as long as possible, the company refiled the case in state court. This new lawsuit rehashes the same, tired arguments that it presented in federal court, but relies exclusively on state laws.

While the federal court ruled in favor of free speech and common sense, and while the re-filed version of the lawsuit is unlikely to succeed, these cases represent an alarming trend in the suppression of public activism. That's why the ACLU joined a number of other public interest groups in founding the Protect the Protest Task Force, a coalition dedicated to fighting SLAPP cases.

These unfounded lawsuits attempt to abuse the judicial system in order to suppress constitutionally protected expression by intimidating activists and advocates. The Protect the Protest Task Force provides support for organizations and individuals targeted as a result of their public interest advocacy.

Protesters and advocacy groups have the right to freely and vigorously criticize their opponents, even when their speech threatens to subvert corporate interests. These cases offer a grim reminder of our responsibility to hold companies accountable when they abuse the judicial system with stunt litigation transparently designed to intimidate and bankrupt their critics.


© 2021 ACLU
Nicola Morrow

Nicola Morrow

Nicola Morrow is a paralegal at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project.

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.

UN Officials Warn of 'Record-Shattering Month' for Civilian Deaths in Yemen

Following deadly strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, Oxfam is calling on the U.N. Security Council to condemn attacks on Yemenis and to "inject new urgency" into peace talks.

Jessica Corbett ·


Experts Say Nuclear Energy as Climate Solution Is Total 'Fiction'

"The reality is nuclear is neither clean, safe, or smart; but a very complex technology with the potential to cause significant harm."

Jessica Corbett ·


Air and Water Under Threat as SCOTUS Targets Environmental Laws

"It seems like we have a new conservative supermajority on the court that is much more inclined to do a slash-and-burn expedition through our major environmental laws."

Julia Conley ·


'Historic Turning Point': Cuba Issues Plan for Vaccine Internationalism

"This lifesaving package," said the head of Progressive International's delegation to Cuba, exemplifies public health and science being "placed above private profit and petty nationalism."

Kenny Stancil ·


Fridays For Future Announces Global Climate Strike for March 25

"Join us for the Global Climate Strike as we demand policymakers and world leaders to prioritize #PeopleNotProfit!"

Common Dreams staff ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo