Environmental activism has just become a lot more difficult and risky. A U.S. federal judge has set a new precedent by allowing an oil giant to have access to the private emails of those who have spoken out against the company. Flying in the face of usual Constitutional protections, the judge granted Chevron’s request to subpoena personal emails of over 100 parties (attorneys, journalist, and activists) who worked with the prosecution.
Following years in legal battles, an Ecuadorian court ultimately leveled an $18 billion fine for the massive ecological damage. Rather than paying this fine, however, Chevron has taken the offensive and is countersuing those involved with the prosecution in U.S. courts for what it calls a “conspiracy.” Thus far, presiding judge Lewis Kaplan has entertained the idea that Chevron has been the victim of a smear campaign rather than the perpetrators of an ecological disaster.
Although Chevron has never had a presence in Ecuador directly, Texaco, a company it merged with 12 years ago, did. Thus, the merged company is responsible for the fact that Texaco was found guilty of leaking nearly 20 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Amazon between 1964-1992, harming the river and destroying portions of the rainforest. Ecuador upheld the ruling in appeals court, as well.
Chevron has found success in avoiding responsibility by portraying Ecuador’s courts as corrupt and alleging that judges colluded with the prosecution. It’s a strategy that was developed for Chevron by Sam Singer, a public relations guru, in a 2008 memo. Notably, that’s three years before Ecuador even ruled in the case, suggesting that it was a long-term plan to shout “rigged!” in order to avoid taking responsibility for the waste dumping.
Does justice always prevail in Ecuadorian courts? Probably not. But it’s similarly a joke to pretend that U.S. federal courts with their pro-corporate slants are any less corrupt, particularly after a case like this where all legal precedence is tossed aside to humor what appears to be a corporation’s Hail Mary play.
The subpoena grants Chevron access to every bit of internet activity attached to more than 100 email accounts and IP addresses over a nine year span. Since these internet users have maintained their anonymity, First Amendment protections would generally protect against such a move. However, the judge explained that since the defendants had not demonstrated that they were U.S. citizens, the subpoena could move forward.
“It is somewhat amazing then, that Judge Kaplan assumed that the account holders were not U.S. citizens. As far as I know, a judge has never before made this assumption when presented with a First Amendment claim. We have to ask then: on what basis did Judge Kaplan reach out and make this assumption?”
As if trying to challenge giant oil corporations were not already difficult enough, the U.S. judge’s ruling could have major ramifications for the plight of environmental activists moving forward. Although Chevron purportedly needs this information to prove that activists were involved in some “conspiracy” against it, there is plenty of reason to fear it will use the information to come after individuals who oppose it. The lawsuit itself is a clear sign that Chevron will come after anyone who dares to point out its wrongdoing.
We’re in a whole heap of trouble if environmental activists cannot even organize to hold multi-billion dollar companies responsible for their ecological devastation without being charged with “conspiracy.”
Photo Credit: Tonya Hennessey