The First Amendment prevents the government from suppressing speech, it does not immunize individuals from the criticism of other private individuals.
Members of the House Committee on Science object to an investigation launched by 20 state Attorney’s General into Exxon Mobil for possible fraud for concealing vital information about climate change from their investors and the public. Springing to the defense of the $486.4 billion company, thirteen members of the committee have accused Greenpeace, 350.org, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other environmental groups and foundations of violating Exxon Mobil’s First Amendment rights.
Claiming to be acting in their oversight role (more commonly understood to be oversight of the Executive Branch, not of civil society), Republican members of the Science Committee sent letters to the organizations requesting a trove of “documents and communications” related to the group’s climate change campaigns.
“This is not about legitimate oversight,” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member of the Committee noted, “this is about harassing and intimidating those who are working to expose the truth about Exxon Mobil’s actions to hide its knowledge of ongoing climate change.”
The groups have refused to comply with the request.
Concerned that, in their zeal to protect the supposed First Amendment rights of Exxon Mobil, these members of Congress were in fact violating the First Amendment rights of civil society organizations, BORDC/DDF today sent a letter explaining,
… not only are the organizations you accuse of violating the First Amendment not in fact doing so, but what you are accusing them of is engaging in First Amendment protected activity. As a result, your letters could be deemed government harassment in retaliation for exercise of First Amendment protected freedoms.
Chip Gibbons, BORDC/DDF Legal Fellow and author of the letter, expressed his concern that members of Congress could so drastically misunderstand the First Amendment. “Unfortunately, these committee members seem to know about as much about the First Amendment as they do about science,” Gibbons said. “As an organization with a proud 56 year tradition of defending free speech, it is an important part of our mission to educate others about the First Amendment. That is why I wrote this hopefully helpful and explanatory letter.”
Although the letter explains the mysteries of First Amendment jurisprudence in terms that a child could understand, Gibbons is willing to go a step further. He has offered to tutor members of the committee who want to understand:
If the members of this committee are still confused about the First Amendment after reading this letter or would just like to learn more about the Bill of Rights, BORDC/DDF is happy to provide them with Constitutional literacy training and/or a history of HUAC.
Read the full letter below or click here to download the pdf.
Read the responses to the committee’s request from the environment groups here.