ACLU Makes Free Speech Case Defending Residents of Low-Income, Majority Black Alabama Town

June 2, 2016

MOBILE, Ala. — The American Civil Liberties Union today asked a federal court to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed against four people who voiced opposition to a coal ash landfill in their small town.

The defendants, all residents of Uniontown, Alabama — a poor, predominantly Black town with a median per capita income of around $8,000 — are being sued for $30 million by Georgia-based Green Group Holdings because the residents are fighting the hazardous coal ash that the company keeps in a landfill in a residential area.

“This lawsuit involves speech at the very core of the First Amendment,” said Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “No one should have to face a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit just for engaging in heartfelt community advocacy. All Americans have a right to speak out against hazardous substances being dumped in their home towns, and the Constitution prevents companies from using lawsuits to silence their critics.”

In 2009, Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown became the new host for millions of cubic yards of coal ash after it spilled out of a landfill in Tennessee following a catastrophic dike failure. The coal ash in Tennessee contaminated land, rivers, reservoirs, and shore areas surrounding the landfill with arsenic and lead, leading the Environmental Protection Agency to conclude that there was a potential “imminent and substantial endangerment to the public health.”

Residents of Uniontown organized in opposition to what they saw as a racial and environmental injustice, speaking out against the risk to their environment and health, as well as the location of the landfill, which is across the street from several homes and next to one of the town’s historic Black cemeteries. Some 35 residents filed a complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The complaint alleges that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management violated their civil rights by allowing the Arrowhead Landfill to locate in their predominately Black neighborhood without adequate protections for the health of residents or the environment.

Some citizens also organized a concerned-citizens’ group called the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, which created a Facebook page that publishes concerns about risks to their environment and health. Green Group sued over the Facebook posts, which included statements such as “we should all have the right to clean air and clean water” and “It affected our everyday life.”

The population of Uniontown is 91 percent Black, and 48 percent live below the poverty line. In addition to being the site of the Arrowhead Landfill — the biggest municipal waste dump in the state — is also the site of a sewage lagoon, catfish farms, and a large cheese processing plant.

The site of the Arrowhead Landfill was once a plantation where Uniontown residents’ Black ancestors — including both enslaved people and tenant farmers — picked cotton, and some are buried in graves near the site. Some Black residents now say that they are unsure about the location and treatment of their ancestors’ remains.

“State officials would never have allowed the landfill to be here if we were a rich, white neighborhood,” said Esther Calhoun, one of the Uniontown residents Green Group is accusing of defamation. “They put it here because we’re a poor, Black community and they thought we wouldn’t fight back. But we are fighting back and we’re not afraid to make our voices heard.”

Before filing the defamation suit, a lawyer for Green Group provided the defendants with a list of demands in exchange for not filing the lawsuit. The “settlement proposal” — which was sent before any lawsuit had been filed — would have required a full apology from each defendant, full-day interviews about their community advocacy, forensic searches of each of our client’s electronic devices, access to the group’s future social media postings, and extensive details about Black Belt Citizens’ membership, advocacy, and communications with other environmental groups. The proposal also would have required each of the defendants to withdraw as complainants in the federal civil rights complaint filed with the EPA. 

“Not only have Black people been expected to endure this kind of systematic racial and environmental injustice throughout our nation’s history, they are expected to bear it silently or be subjected to harsh consequences just for advocating for their health and community,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “We want to ensure that our clients don’t have to face that choice in Uniontown.”

The defendants in the case are represented by lawyers from the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project; the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program; the ACLU of Alabama; Charles S. Sims of the law firm Proskauer Rose; and Alabama attorneys Bill Dawson and Matthew Swerdlin.

Today’s motion to dismiss, the “settlement proposal” previously offered to the defendants, and other case documents are here:

https://www.aclu.org/locals-v-landfill

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