Environmental Activist Sued for Libel Over Facebook Comment About Oil and Gas Company

SOURCE:  desmogblog

By Simon Davis-Cohen

On November 17, 2016, a Colorado environmental activist named Pete Kolbenschlag used Facebook to leave a comment on a local newspaper article, the kind of thing more than a billion people do every day.

However, most people don’t get sued for libel over their Facebook comments. (Although some do.)

The Post Independent story that Kolbenschlag commented on was about oil and gas extraction on federal lands near his home, in western Colorado’s North Fork Valley. It announced that the Obama administration’s Bureau of Land Management was canceling all oil and gas leases on the iconic Thompson Divide, a large, rugged swath of Forest Service land.

In retaliation, the article reported, a Texas-based oil and gas company called SG Interests (SGI), which owned 18 leases in the Thompson Divide area, was planning legal action against the federal government. The decision to cancel Thompson Divide leases was one of Obama’s last while in office.

SGI claimed it had obtained documents that “clearly show” that the decision to cancel the leases “was a predetermined political decision from the Obama administration taking orders from environmental groups.”

Kolbenschlag, who has opposed drilling in the region and engaged in environmental advocacy for some 20 years, responded to SGI’s allegations by posting the following comment:

While SGI alleges “collusion” let us recall that it, SGI, was actually fined for colluding (with GEC) to rig bid prices and rip off American taxpayers. Yes, these two companies owned by billionaires thought it appropriate to pad their portfolios at the expense of you and I and every other hard-working American.”

Shortly thereafter, SGI sued Kolbenschlag for libel (which generally refers to defamatory written statements).

SGI Investigation and Settlement

Kolbenschlag’s comment was in reference to a settlement SGI and Gunnison Energy Company (GEC), another oil and gas firm active on federal lands in the region, signed with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012.

According to court documents filed by SGI, the settlement followed a two-year investigation into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two oil and gas companies in which “SGI would bid on certain federal oil and gas leases … and … SGI would assign GEC a 50 percent interest in any leases for which it was the successful bidder.” In other words, rather than compete in the bidding process, SGI would do the bidding, and then give GEC half of the mineral rights.

According to these court documents, the Justice Department’s two-year investigation led it to determine “that SGI’s and GEC’s agreement to bid jointly pursuant to the MOU constituted a per se violation of Section 1 of the Sherman [Antitrust] Act.”

The original settlement “required” the companies to pay $550,000 for “antitrust and False Claims Act violations.” It was the first time the federal government challenged an “anticompetitive bidding agreement for mineral rights leases.” That settlement, however, was later rejected by a federal judge, who approved a new settlement of $1 million and did not require the companies to admit to wrongdoing.

Libel or Retaliation?

SGI argues that Kolbenschlag’s statement that the company was fined for colluding with GEC is libelous because it is “contrary to the true facts, and reasonable persons … reading … the statement would be likely to think significantly less favorably about [SGI] than they would if they knew the true facts.”

The company argues that it was never convicted of or admitted to wrongdoing, and the settlement agreement did not require it. SGI further argues that it was not “fined,” but rather agreed to pay the government money to settle the case.

Moreover, SGI claims that “agreements such as the ones entered into between SGI and GEC are common place in the oil and gas industry.” And therefore, presumably, there’s nothing wrong with what they did.

Kolbenschlag’s attorney not only argues that his client’s comment was “substantially true” in the eyes of ordinary readers, but also that SGI’s lawsuit against him is in retaliation against his environmental activism. In legal briefs, his attorney writes that “this lawsuit is SGI’s transparent and blatant effort to punish Mr. Kolbenschlag for his public speech and advocacy that are not to SGI’s liking.”

For example, Kolbenschlag was part of a group called Citizens for a Healthy Community that focused on BLM rulemaking related to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on federal lands. “SGI is misusing the judicial system as the means to silence its critics,” claimed Kolbenschlag’s attorney.

READ the rest of this article HERE.

9 comments

  1. Yet another example of corporate greed & overreach! Its going to be a LONG 4 (well 3 more) years. Allowing these oil & gas corporations to run over any community or citizen it chooses? This is democratic?

    Like

    • True! Just because the livestock/ranching proponents would like to believe in the “good old West” – where the cowboy way is the only way? Kind of the same thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Short for strategic lawsuits against public participation, SLAPPs have become an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing critics of businesses, often for environmental and local land development issues.

    An “anti-SLAPP” law is meant to provide a remedy from SLAPP suits. Under most such statutes, the person sued makes a motion to strike the case because it involves speech on a matter of public concern. The plaintiff then has the burden of showing a probability that they will prevail in the suit — meaning they must make more than allegations of harm and actually show that they have evidence that can result in a verdict in their favor. If the defendant prevails on the motion, many of the statutes allow them to collect reasonable attorney’s fees from the plaintiff.

    The goal of plaintiffs in these cases is not necessarily to actually win the lawsuit, but to drag their critics to court and bury them under a pile of attorney’s fees and embarrassment until they cry “uncle!” and agree to be quiet, anti-SLAPP law advocates said.

    “SLAPPs aren’t just random meritless lawsuits,” Kurdock and Goldowitz wrote. “They are lawsuits that directly attack First Amendment rights.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anti-SLAPP laws
      An “anti-SLAPP” law is meant to provide a remedy from SLAPP suits

      Anti-SLAPP statutes are meant to protect people from lawsuits of questionable merit that are often filed to intimidate speakers into refraining from criticizing a person, company, or project. Fighting these suits can be a time-consuming and expensive enterprise. Paterno thinks the anti-SLAPP statute saved her from mortgaging her house to pay legal bills, because it allowed her to recoup most of her attorney fees after the suit’s dismissal.

      https://www.rcfp.org/browse-media-law-resources/digital-journalists-legal-guide/anti-slapp-laws-0

      Like

      • This is certainly a good thing to be aware of! I had never heard of it and I’m sure many of us were in the same boat. Its good to know that there is protection for the “little people” from being sued & harassed by corporations & big business.

        Like

  3. How an Ontario mom fended off a $120K libel lawsuit over her Facebook posts

    A Stouffville, Ont. teacher has become the first person in Ontario to be awarded damages under provincial rules designed to protect the free speech of ordinary citizens.

    He handed her a letter from United Soils Management threatening to sue her for libel over posts she had made in two private community Facebook groups — “Stouffville Mommies” and “Stouffville Buy and Sell.”
    In the posts, Mohammed expressed concern about the company’s plan to deposit fill in a local pit, writing the process could “potentially poison our children.”
    She directed readers to a local newspaper article in which several town councillors warned the hydro-excavation trucks used for the process could contaminate the nearby drinking water supply — an allegation the company vehemently denies.
    Dismissed under anti-SLAPP laws
    Mohammed said she couldn’t afford to fight a lawsuit and she certainly couldn’t afford to pay the damages.
    “Oh my goodness, I was terrified,” she said. “Where am I going to get this money from? Am I going to have to sell my family home to do this? And what about my kids’ education funds?”
    She also feared the lawsuit would affect her job as a teacher, if people found out.
    “What is the community going to think about this and what are they going to think about me?”
    The community, however, had Mohammed’s back. In fact, the mayor called her this week to give her the good news that the lawsuit had been thrown out.

    http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-friday-edition-1.4175492/how-an-ontario-mom-fended-off-a-120k-libel-lawsuit-over-her-facebook-posts-1.4175496

    Like

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