Wednesday, March 07, 2001

Citizen action


Truth can often carry high price

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        Here I thought Boone County had some genuine activists - tough, mouthy, determined.

        Turns out they're active only under certain circumstances. When challenged in court, they'd rather disappear.

        I'm speaking here of the residents opposed to a limestone mining operation in Boone County. They did a good job campaigning against it: The Fiscal Court in August rejected a zoning amendment that would have permitted the mine.

        Hilltop Basic Resources Inc. sued to overturn the decision.

        As part of that suit, the company wants nine residents to testify about their actions and produce their notes, letters, phone records and business calendars.

        The nine spoke against Hilltop at a public hearing. The company wants to know whether they unduly influenced commissioners in other ways.

        The residents are outraged by the subpoenas.

        If such tactics succeed, “No one will ever speak out again,” they claim in court papers. “Free speech will be stifled, corporate interests will control debate, and ultimately our democracy will be weakened.”

        Part of me wants to agree.

        The other part asks: Are we Americans really such wimps? Would we give up so easily?

        We have the right to free speech, but sometimes there are consequences. We ought to be able to face them.

        Proposed memo to Hilltop: “Bring it on. We know we're right, and we can't be intimidated.”
       

Standing up

        Yeah, well, it's not so easy, says Larry Wilson of Middlesboro, Ky.

        Mr. Wilson is one of my heroes — an ordinary citizen who has spent several decades battling corporations over environmental crimes.

        One of his groups, Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens, sued a tanning company that was ruining people's health and land. The citizens also accused the city of Middlesboro of failing to protect them.

        Lawsuits flew. Middlesboro Tanning Co. sued the residents for hurting its business. The city sued them for defaming its character.

        In the end, only the citizens prevailed, winning an $11 million judgment against the company in the mid-'90s.

        Mr. Wilson couldn't be silenced then, and he hasn't stopped yapping since.

        But he admits the lawsuits were scary.

        “If somebody got a $5 million judgment against me, with five kids in school, that could be the end of everything,” he says.
       

"Fragile enough'

        He has never heard of a case like the one in Boone County. It's more common for companies to sue citizens directly, Mr. Wilson says.

        Such actions are known as SLAPPs: Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation.

        “We're fortunate enough to have a democratic process in this country,” Mr. Wilson says. “When we use litigation to impede that in any manner, we're threatening that entire process. Lord knows it's fragile enough.”

        I can't disagree. Still, I hope the Boone County residents hang tough. Depositions aren't so bad, and even if they did call commissioners to express their views, so what? That's part of the democratic process, too.

        Free speech carries risks. One is that some company will ask you to keep talking. Why not go for it?

        As Larry Wilson says: “When you allow somebody's threats or implied threats to alter what you're doing, then they have been effective.”

       Karen Samples can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or ksamples@enquirer.com.

       



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