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Chevron Accused of Violating Free Speech Rights

Wed, 01/27/2010 - 6:14am

SAN FRANCISCO (Business Wire) - Chevron is facing charges that its aggressive defense of a $27 billion environmental liability in Ecuador is crossing the line into violating the free speech rights of its critics in the U.S., according to news reports and publicly available court filings.

Legal papers filed earlier this month in federal court in San Francisco accuse Chevron of trying to create a "chilling effect" by using lawsuits to silence critics of its misconduct in violation of free speech rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Chevron is accused of orchestrating the ejection by the City of Houston of runners from the Houston Marathon Expo Center – where the oil giant was the main sponsor – because the runners wanted to call attention to human rights problems in Ecuador that are the subject of the lawsuit.

"The tactics Chevron is now using have gone beyond what is reasonable in a litigation context and are clearly meant to intimidate its opponents into silence, implicating Constitutional rights in the process," said Laura Garr, an American advisor to the Amazonian communities.

In Houston, Chevron attracted unwanted headlines earlier this month when members of a team of runners from the Rainforest Action Network participating in the Chevron Houston Marathon were forcibly removed from the marathons Expo. The runners had paid for a table to distribute "Im Running for Human Rights" stickers and information about Chevrons refusal to clean up the environmental disaster in Ecuador, where a lawsuit accuses the company of dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste into the rainforest to cut costs.

Steven Karpas, director of the marathon, told the runners from RAN that "higher ups at Chevron are freaking out" and threatened to arrest them if they didnt leave. Police then ejected the runners from the city-owned and operated building for exercising their right to free speech, giving rise to First Amendment claims against both the city of Houston and Chevron, according to RAN.

The ejection received wide coverage in the Houston media.

"It is a sad day when the Chevron Houston Marathon - which raises awareness and money for many important causes - would deny the legal rights of participants to appease a corporate sponsor that is clearly ashamed of its human rights record," said Maria Ramos, one of the RAN runners.

In San Francisco, the separate, legal case accuses Chevron of violating a California law that prevents corporations from threatening lawsuits to silence its critics. The case was brought by a lawyer, Cristobal Bonifaz, who has been a longtime critic of Chevrons malfeasance in Ecuador and who was once involved in the underlying environmental litigation in that country.

The California law, called an anti-SLAPP statute, is intended to prevent SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuits brought to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of defending a frivolous lawsuit until they abandon their criticism. It has been used on over 200 occasions since its inception in 1993.

Bonifaz, a 75-year old semi-retired attorney who works as a sole practitioner on his farm in Massachusetts, was responding to a Chevron lawsuit against him for "malicious prosecution" for bringing an unrelated case against the company on behalf of seven individuals who claimed that had cancer due to contamination caused by the company. Bonifaz later withdrew his claims when it turned out medical records did not support the claims, blaming an Ecuadorian paralegal for the problem.

The case against Bonifaz was brought on Chevrons behalf by Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, a law firm that prides itself on using scorched-earth litigation tactics to represent large corporations and is now facing charges that is being used by Chevron as a sort of "legal goon squad" to intimidate critics of the companys Ecuador problem.

In the underlying environmental case in Ecuador, Chevron is charged with deliberately dumping billions of gallons of toxic waste when it operated several large oil fields in Ecuador's Amazon from 1964 to 1990, decimating indigenous groups and causing a spike in cancer rates and other oil-related diseases. A court-appointed Special Master in Ecuador, where the trial is being held at Chevrons request, found 1,401 excess cancer deaths due to the contamination and pegged damages at $27.3 billion.

A final judgment is expected this year.

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