It’s been several months since a Washington State District Court granted four anti-harassment orders against me from Chris Toher, Lew Guerrette, Dave Harrison, and James McReynolds. Now we are finally approaching the culmination of the appeal of those orders, and I am represented by the Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center and the President of the Seattle Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild as we fight back against the attempt at corporate repression.
The four men who petitioned for the anti-harassment orders are executives at the Seattle office of Skanska USA—contracted by the University of Washington to build a new underground animal lab in which thousands of animals would be buried, tortured, and killed. Because of Skanska’s intimate connection to what will happen to animals if the lab is built, people engaged in protests at Skanska’s Seattle office and residential picketing in the executives’ neighborhoods to demand that Skanska drop the construction contract and effectively bring the lab plans to a halt. Skanska responded by filing a lawsuit that included Washington State Court petitions requesting four anti-harassment orders against me alone—despite the fact that dozens of people participated in the Seattle area protests. This type of petition is normally reserved for the victims of serious domestic violence, not a multi-national corporation using the Court’s resources to try to deter lawful protest against them.
In the petitions and through subsequent briefing and testimony, the Skanska executives alleged that I was the “leader” of protest activity against them (despite grassroots, horizontal organizing…which giant corporations apparently don’t understand…) and attempted to paint the picture that protests on public sidewalks and protected speech on the campaign website constituted “harassment” rather than First Amendment activity. The District Court judge granted the orders, restraining me from going near the executives’ homes or office and from encouraging others to communicate with them. When I found out that the orders had been granted, I was shocked—but the granting of the orders did not mean that Skanska had won.
These types of lawsuits are commonly referred to as “SLAPPs”—Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation—and are a corporation’s best friend in trying to chill dissent and stop social justice activists from organizing against them. Through SLAPPs, corporations effectively criminalize what should be legal protest activity and derail campaigns with court dates, legal fees, and attempting to deter activists from getting involved in a campaign for fear of also getting sued. But while seeing a campaign crash and burn may be what corporations want out of SLAPPing activists, that does not have to be what happens; rather, the corporate repression can be part of the fire that keeps activists motivated to fight. If corporations are going to sue people for trying to protect animals, the earth, and each other, then we must remain grounded in the spirit of resistance and let their lawsuits be a reminder of which side we’re on—and why we must organize strategically, effectively, and with inspired passion. It is also why it is important to attend one of CLDC’s Know Your Rights trainings for activists (or contact us about organizing one in your area) so that your community knows of the potential risks in fighting against corporations and prepares for them ahead of time. This preparation includes forming relationships with sympathetic attorneys (like those at CLDC) so that if someone is sued by a corporation, lawyers can jump into action immediately because the deadlines to act or respond are usually very short in this type of lawsuit.
Despite Skanska’s lawsuits against me, the potential fate of thousands of animals ending up in an underground lab inspired the launch of No New Animal Lab, a campaign that has caused the grassroots animal rights movement to reawaken. People in over a dozen U.S. cities as well as in Finland and Sweden have protested against Skanska, 500 people gathered to march on the UW, two individuals locked themselves to excavation equipment on the construction site and stopped work for a day, both local and national media outlets have covered the momentum to stop the lab, and people continue to converge under the banner of “We will stop this lab!”
While the No New Animal Lab campaign has taken Skanska by storm in the streets, this Friday we will fight back in the courtrooms. CLDC has a long history of having activists’ backs as they face corporate repression tactics—from having trainings for activist communities to providing resources about SLAPPs, to representing people across the country—and this Friday in Seattle will be one more of those times as we appear before the King County Superior Court for oral arguments in the appeal of the anti-harassment orders. Lauren Regan, Director of CLDC, is confident that anyone with a basic understanding of constitutional law will rule in our favor and overturn the lower court’s bad decision. The District Court’s legal decision granting the anti-harassment orders contained a flawed interpretation of free speech with potentially dangerous precedent for protestors of all stripes, including union and labor activists who have historically used residential picketing as an effective tactic in their organizing campaigns, and so appealing the SLAPP decision is critical to protect the rights of activists and to show that corporate attempts at chilling dissent will be met with strong opposition and will have no effect in deterring activists from fighting against them—and may actually have the opposite effect.
When I was served with the petitions for the anti-harassment orders all those months ago, I didn’t know that the legal path would lead to an appeal in the Superior Court, but I never questioned that Skanska’s attempts at silencing protest would fail because I have never been alone in any of this. When a movement has a foundation of solidarity and resistance, we can be prepared to do what’s needed for the issues we care about whether in the courtroom or the streets.