Tammie Carson, targeted by TransCanada’s lawsuit (Photo by Tar Sands Blockade)

TransCanada, which is currently constructing a tar sands oil pipeline that runs through Texas, reached a settlement with activists who have been protesting the pipeline. The settlement was the result of a lawsuit the multinational corporation brought to censor, intimidate and silence activists protesting construction by burdening them with a lawsuit where they would be preoccupied with defending themselves in court.

Lawyers from the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC) represented the Tar Sands Blockade, Rising Tide North America and Rising North Texas and several other individuals. As part of the settlement, the activists agreed to “no longer trespass or cause damage to Keystone XL property including the easements within private property boundaries.”

The suit brought was what is known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Such lawsuits enable fascism by providing a mechanism for a corporation to go after individuals or groups engaged in protest or freedom of speech. They are often used against people who lack resources or cannot afford to pay the legal expenses necessary to stand up to a corporation in court.

CLDC cites one court in the case of Gordon v. Marrone that described SLAPP lawsuits as suits that:

…function by forcing the target into the judicial arena where the SLAPP filer foists upon the target the expenses of a defense…The purpose of such gamesmanship ranges from simple retribution for past activism to discouraging future activism…Those who lack the financial resources and emotional stamina to play out the “game” face the difficult choice of defaulting despite meritorious defenses or being brought to their knees to settle…Persons who have been outspoken on issues of public importance targeted in such suits or who have witnessed such suits will often choose in the future to stay silent. Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined.

The activists had a choice: either settle or face a lawsuit in court where TransCanada would seek $5 million for alleged financial damages or a “draconian injunction” that could have much worse consequences.

According to the Toronto Star, Wood County District Judge G. Timothy Boswell “urged the sides to settle their differences out of court.” Also, the deal extends “beyond that single county to include demonstrations aimed at interfering with pipeline construction activities throughout Keystone’s entire southern leg.” So, the settlement gives TransCanada more power to go after Tar Sands Blockade, the Rising Tide chapters and known individuals who have been protesting.

What it does not do is stop individuals unknown to TransCanada and groups other than Tar Sands Blockade or Rising Tide chapters from engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience or disruptive activity. However, presumably, the corporation could take legal action against activists and claim in court that it has evidence tying people the Tar Sands Blockade claims are unaffiliated to the groups who were part of the settlement.

Lauren Regan, veteran attorney with CLDC, who helped coordinate legal representation for the activists, reacted to the settlement:

This is a David versus Goliath situation, where an unethical, transnational corporation is using its weight to crush First Amendment rights of people speaking out and resisting the irreparable destruction that will result from construction of this highly controversial XL Pipeline…But the resistance to the pipeline is growing, not shrinking; it’s coming from everywhere.  This is a national and global issue that will effect us all.

A Tar Sands Blockade press release included reactions from two individuals targeted by TransCanada’s lawsuit.

Texan grandmother Tammie Carson declared, “I took action for my grandkids’ future. I couldn’t sit idly by and watch as a multinational corporate bully abused eminent domain to build a dirty and dangerous tar sands pipeline right through Texans’ backyards.” But she said, “I had no choice but to settle or lose my home and everything I’ve worked for my entire life.”

Spokesperson and defendant from Fort Worth, Texas, Ramsey Sprague, stated, “TransCanada is dead wrong if they think a civil lawsuit against a handful of Texans is going to stop a grassroots civil disobedience movement. This is nothing more than another example of TransCanada repressing dissent and bullying Texans who are defending their homes and futures from toxic tar sands.”

The Tar Sands Blockade noted how TransCanada has been inconsistent, contending publicly the protests are not disrupting construction while at the same time pursuing this lawsuit where it suggested the protests were causing millions of dollars of damage. If you’re a multinational corporation in a country with city, state, federal governments and even a judicial system that will let you have your way with harassing and forcing people into selling land for a pipeline project, then you can be disingenuous and say whatever fits your agenda and suppress dissent.

These protests against TransCanada are not going to go away. Today was a World Action Day in solidarity with the indigenous sovereignty movement Idle No More in Canada that has been taking action in defense of their land and the environment. The Tar Sands Blockade has been mobilizing people since August of last year. Before that, over a thousand people were arrested in multiple actions in front of the White House while demanding President Barack Obama block TransCanada’s pipeline project from being built.

This may have the effect TransCanada wants on a few people who were undecided on whether to go protest in Texas against the pipeline, but in the long-term, it has the potential to galvanize more and more Americans to challenge the way TransCanada has been forcibly seizing land from low-income owners so it can build a dirty pipeline that is destined to pollute the environment and increase America’s contribution to climate change.