In the early days of the NoDAPL resistance at Standing Rock, even before the official existence of Water Protector Legal Collective, National Lawyers Guild attorneys (who later became WPLC board members) Bruce Ellison, Rachel Lederman and Jeff Haas represented certain Water Protectors in connection with a civil suit filed by Dakota Access, LLC on August 15, 2016.
The lawsuit sought a judgement against seven named Water Protectors as well as an unspecified number of John and Jane Doe defendants that served as placeholders for future named defendants. Its aim was to permanently enjoin the defendants from “interfering” with DAPL’s ability to build the pipeline. DAPL also sought the court’s affirmation of its entitlement to construct the pipeline and asked for money damages, court costs and “any other relief the Court deems proper.”
“When we arrived at Standing Rock in September 2016, DAPL was seeking to use the federal court to enjoin anyone from protesting at or near its worksite at Highway 1806,” recalled Haas. “Our defendants did not agree to being restricted to a ‘free speech zone’ and we sought the lifting of the Temporary Restraining Order and denial of a preliminary injunction. The judge ultimately decided that the federal court could not be used to enforce a matter more properly brought before the state court, and dismissed the case.”
The suit, successfully quashed by the three attorneys who now all serve on WPLC’s board, was a classic SLAPP suit. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, and is a meritless lawsuit brought to retaliate against citizens who speak on matters of public concern in order to intimidate or silence them. SLAPP suits are such a recognized tactic in suppressing dissent that a majority of states in the U.S. have enacted anti-SLAPP suit acts.
“SLAPP suits are a threat to the right to assemble and to engage in free speech, and have historically been used against strikers in a picket line, or demonstrators at a protest,” Haas explained. “The entity that claims their functioning is being interfered with tries to get an injunction against everyone including unnamed parties as a quick way to try to stop people from effectively demonstrating. They sometimes add money damages as a way to bolster the claim of daily harm. But the main aim is to have the court enjoin the protestors from protesting, and jail them if they continue to do so in violation of the injunction. Our intervention prevented that.”