Free to Speak: Movement Lawyering for Climate Justice

by Maggie Ellinger-Locke

September 15, 2021

A healthy democracy is a precondition to a healthy environment, and our current system is not working for the vast majority of people or the planet

Democracy Awakening Rally in Washington D.C.

Democracy Awakening Rally in Washington D.C.

Fifty years of Greenpeace activists defending our planet from destruction and putting their bodies on the line brings many valuable lessons. Critical among these are the importance of free speech and the power of direct action to bring about long term structural change. But our rights are under attack, and corporate money is hard at work trying to shrink civic space and undermine activism.

For the past several years, state lawmakers have been introducing anti-protest legislation, designed to chill speech and dismantle movements. Over 230 bills have been introduced in 45 states since 2017. Of these, 36 have been enacted. But the bills don’t need to become laws in order to chill the speech of protesters, their mere introduction makes resistance harder. As a recent Greenpeace USA Democracy Campaign report shows, corporations are telling the public they support voting rights and powerful movements, but at the same time are making massive campaign donations to the politicians enacting some of the most dangerous laws in the country.

And that’s not the only way corporations are trying to harm speech. Another insidious tactic involves Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), where corporations file lawsuits with the purpose of dragging activists into court to defend against baseless charges. The purpose of these lawsuits isn’t to actually win in court, but to bury the activists in paperwork and force them to defend themselves, a costly endeavor that distracts from their important work. Greenpeace has had two such lawsuits filed against us in recent years, and while we’ve had success throughout the litigation process, the cases continue to drag on. Protect the Protest outlines our coalition efforts to fight back against these corporate attacks.

Individual activists and advocacy groups threatened by SLAPPs (strategic lawsuit against public participation), rally against corporate bullies like the Kasowitz Benson Torres law firm and stand up for our First Amendment rights. This New York-based firm has been hired by logging giants and oil pipeline companies to sue advocacy organizations like Greenpeace — as well as dozens of individual climate activists.

Another way we are fighting back is by working to improve our voting system and help ensure as many people as possible have access to the ballot. A healthy democracy is a precondition to a healthy environment, and our current system for electing lawmakers is not working for the vast majority of people, or the planet.

In coalition with grassroots partners around the country, Greenpeace has been building support for two pieces of landmark federal legislation. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the Supreme Court-gutted Voting Rights Act. The For the People Act would make it easier and simpler to cast a ballot in federal elections, it also ends congressional gerrymandering, revamps federal campaign finance laws, strengthens government ethics rules, and more. Together, these bills represent the most fundamental improvements to our electoral system offered in decades.

And that’s not all. 

Activists hold signs outside a campaign fundraiser for Democratic presidential hopeful Sec. Hillary Clinton at the Dakota. Greenpeace is asking Clinton and other presidential hopefuls to reject campaign funds from fossil fuel interests.

Greenpeace continues to look for ways to leverage the power of the legal system to further social change. Last year we filed suit against Walmart for their misleading recyclability labels. The corporation’s private label has incorrectly labeled its single use plastic as “recyclable” and we are demanding the largest retailer on the planet stop deceiving consumers.

In the past year we also filed three federal administrative complaints. With the FTC against Chevron for its greenwashed advertising. With the SEC against DeepGreen for its harmful deep sea mining practices. And at CBP against FCF—the world’s largest tuna supplier—for forced labor within its supply chain.

Greenpeace lawyers are embedded in the campaign and programmatic work of the Greenpeace movement overall. Whether we are supporting activists fighting charges for direct action, ensuring regulatory compliance, or building in coalition spaces, we remain grounded in the work of climate and environmental justice. Thanks to supporters like you, we will continue to fight for another fifty years.

This essay is part of our Perspectives: Our Next Fifty Years series, in which we reflect briefly on our first fifty years, but more importantly, we lay out the future we are building together—collaborative, ambitious, and intersectional. The work ahead won’t be easy, but we’ve never shied away from hard work. We continue to push for policies that recognize the contributions and leadership of marginalized groups, and we amplify their voices, looking to their wisdom to show us the way. We hold corporations accountable, demanding real action that puts people ahead of profit. We work each day with our partners to co-create green, safe planet for all beings. We recognize that equality is not necessarily justice. We demand more from our leaders, from our colleagues, and from ourselves. A green and peaceful world isn’t just a slogan—it is our mission, and it takes each one of us to get there.

Maggie Ellinger-Locke

By Maggie Ellinger-Locke

Maggie Ellinger-Locke is a staff attorney and democracy campaigner at Greenpeace USA.

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