Nearly a year has passed since the protest camps near North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation disbanded. But over the past few months, the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline have rekindled the fight, targeting environmental groups with a lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union and other free speech organizations argue could stifle advocacy nonprofits “across the political spectrum.”

The suit, filed by Energy Transfer Equity and Energy Transfer Partners this fall, levels allegations of fraud, defamation and racketeering against a host of organizations including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and These groups, the DAPL owners contend, were part of a “criminal enterprise” that used misinformation to incite violence and encourage the public to pressure pipeline financiers into withdrawing support.

“Under [Energy Transfer Partners’] theories, ordinary political speech that runs counter to a corporation’s business interests could expose the speaker to enormous, unwarranted liability,” the ACLU countered in a Dec. 11 amicus brief calling for the case’s dismissal. “Public campaigns, routine fundraising appeals, conversations with allies, and vindication of legal rights in court could all be targeted.”

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the litigation is Energy Transfer Partners’ choice to list Earth First! among the defendants. According to court filings, papers were served to the Florida office of the Earth First! Journal. But as journal editor Ryan Hartman pointed out last week, Earth First! is not a legal entity with a formal structure or leadership. Rather, it’s a social movement, one that utilizes direct action to defend the environment. As Hartman said in an Earth First! Journal post on Dec. 5, “You can’t sue an idea.”

Like the DAPL protest, which inspired Missoulians to rally in solidarity and donate supplies to the camps, Earth First! has a strong connection to western Montana. Downtown Missoula served as homebase for Earth First! Journal in the late 1980s, and local Earth First!ers regularly published an environmental newsletter called Wild Rockies Review into the early 2000s. Earlier this month, a 26-issue digital archive of that newsletter went live at Jim Coefield, a Montana Earth First!er in the 1980s and ’90s who helped compile the archive, agrees that Earth First! is not, and never has been, an organization in the traditional sense.

“It was an idea that linked people together,” Coefield says. “Maybe an ‘extended affinity group’ might be one way to look at it, using the activist lingo. Anyone could purport to belong to Earth First!”

Whether the issue was wolves or wilderness, Coefield says Earth First!ers of his day recognized that to elevate the debate, you had to demand public attention. He sees the DAPL protest as an obvious parallel. And in Energy Transfer Partners’ litigation, he sees another parallel.

“This current lawsuit against Earth First! is nothing more than another attempt at, ‘How can we fracture the environmental movement and suppress dissent?’”

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