A SLAPP IN THE FACE
Speaking Out and Fighting Titans
Imagine my shock when, picking up my local newspaper and reading the front page headlines: “TITAN SUING TWO RESIDENTS FOR SLANDER OVER COMMENTS MADE AT COMMISSIONERS MEETING”,it is my own name I read beneath the dramatic caption. But just over a year ago on March 5th,2011, that’s exactly how I learned I was being sued.
And what was it I had done to incur the wrath of “Titan” – a billion dollar Greek Cement Company? I had joined a growing grassroots movement within my community that opposed the building of what would be the fourth largest cement plant in the nation just a few miles from my home. This monstrous plant would be built on the banks of our already mercury-impaired river and would destroy thousands of acres of irreplaceable wetlands. A 2500 acre mine, over 70 ft. deep, dug to extract the limestone, would sit above the aquifer that supplies our main source of drinking water, draining millions of gallons of water from the water table every day, and posing a real danger of contamination, salt infiltration and water depletion. This heavy polluter (the cement industry is one of the dirtiest industries on the planet) would be located adjacent to residential homes and within 5 miles of where over 8500 children attend school. Close to 12 million pounds of pollution would be emitted every year from its 500 ft. smokestack, raining 140 toxins and pollutants down on those schoolchildren, who all the medical studies tell us are the most susceptible to their emissions. As you might imagine, there are few in our community who are not opposed to the building of this plant. Especially when you consider we are already the highest toxic emitting county in North Carolina. Can we really bear another 12 million pounds of pollution every year?
I had no idea on that fateful Friday what a “SLAPP” was, but I can tell you, I very much felt as if I’d been slapped in the face. I was stunned. Was it really possible for two citizens to be sued for voicing their grievances to their elected officials? Was I really faced with having to fight a billion dollar foreign corporation in court over factual comments I had made a year earlier at an open county commissioners meeting? …A public forum? I have always believed that, in a democracy, public participation is the cornerstone of the system; it is a bedrock principle that connects government to the governed. I firmly believe that we all have the ability to make change in our communities by standing up and speaking out for what we believe is right. And I’ve always encouraged others to do the same. “Power of the People” may sound trite, but I really do believe in it!
That belief however, was deeply shaken after Feb. 5th. I soon understood the meaning of a “SLAPP” and the price pediatrician Dr. David Hill and I were going to have to pay for exercising our right to petition our government on behalf of our neighbors, our friends, and our children. A “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation”, according to Wikipedia, is “a lawsuit that is intended to censor, intimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition. The typical SLAPP plaintiff does not normally expect to win the lawsuit. The plaintiff's goals are accomplished if the defendant succumbs to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. A SLAPP may also intimidate others from participating in the debate.”
The funny thing is, neither David Hill nor I succumbed to any of those things. And neither did the rest of our community. There are many emotions I have felt throughout this ordeal; fear, apprehension, resentment, indignation ….and yes, sometimes exhaustion. But there is one thing that I have never felt in the past year. And that is alone. From the resolve and courage of David Hill, to the generosity and kindness of Gary and William and all of the staff at Shipman and Wright, LLP for stepping up to defend our case, to the encouragement of my husband Doug, and most of all, to the incredible outpouring of support from this community I live in and love, I have been sustained through all of this by all of them. Yes, some have been intimidated. And some have become too fearful to speak out. Why wouldn’t they be afraid? A behemoth multinational corporation who is used to bullying its way into getting what it wants is something to fear. What amazes me is the number of citizens, who have stood up to this polluting bully - by continuing to speak out, persisting in their protest, and standing beside David and I in an extraordinary show of solidarity. How fortunate to have so many brave and resolute people by our side! People who are demanding the right to breathe clean air, drink safe water and expect a future where their children can grow and flourish in a healthy environment. What is disheartening however, is that the courage of the citizens did not extend to our elected officials. It is truly shameful that of all of those officials, only one had the fortitude to stand up to the corporate bully and express publicly that what Titan did was wrong. (Thank you Commissioner Rick Catlin). We are being sued for “petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances” – a First Amendment Right - and our own local government has not had the backbone to defend that right, not only for David and me, but for ALL of the constituents they were elected to represent.
People are constantly asking “So, what happens now?” Surely Titan has dropped this frivolous lawsuit against the two of you, they surmise.
If only it were true. Titan has not given an inch. Our lawyers continue to prove our case as we conclude the “Discovery Phase” - an arduous and intrusive process I wouldn’t wish on anyone. What’s next? We will have to wait and see. David and I both know how fortunate we are to have such a competent legal team on our side. And we hope to see this nightmare end soon. We know, of course, that Titan and their lawyers do not share that hope and will use their considerable resources to drag this on as long as possible. After all, by definition this suit was meant to wear us down and wear us out. But, what they may not have bargained for is that their intent has only deepened my resolve to stop Titan Cement from becoming the bully next door. As someone once said: The difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is in how you use them.
To contribute to the Darrell/Hill Defense fund go to www.fighttitan.com
To find out the facts about Titan Cement visit www.stoptitan.org
A short documentary on the lawsuit:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MofHuCRRoZw