Report — From the March 2018 issue

Empty Suits

Defamation law and the price of dissent

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The stench first hit me on US 80, just past the catfish feed mill and the processing plant next door. It was late March in Uniontown, Alabama, a whistle-stop thirty miles west of Selma, but even on that mild day last year the odor was inescapable. What began as the smell of manure ripened into the fetor of something dead and mildewed as I drove through the heart of town — an eerily quiet strip of brick storefronts, many of them abandoned. In Uniontown, I would come to learn, the smell functioned the way the weather does in most places. Its vicissitudes were a regular topic of idle conversation, and the local citizenry studied its moods.

The precise source of the smell isn’t clear, but some Uniontown residents point to Arrowhead Landfill, which occupies about a thousand acres of woodland just southeast of town. For eighteen months starting in July 2009, railcars rumbled into the landfill on a daily basis, carting more than 4 million tons of coal ash — a byproduct of coal burning that contains arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals — from eastern Tennessee, some 300 miles away. (A disaster at a power plant there had spilled the ash into a nearby watershed.) Although regulators and the landfill’s owners assured them otherwise, Uniontown residents grew alarmed at the prospect of fugitive ash choking their air and chemicals leaching into their creeks.

A gas flare at Arrowhead Landfill. All photographs from Uniontown, Alabama, by RaMell Ross

Some also detected a racial dynamic at play. The power plant was in Roane County, Tennessee, which is more than ninety percent white. The same percentage of Uniontown’s 2,400 residents is black. And it didn’t help that despite all the empty acreage available within the site, Arrowhead’s operators chose to truck the coal ash two miles from the rail depot and deposit it on the southern edge of the landfill. Trailer homes line the two country roads that cradle the disposal site. Their occupants for the most part are black.

For Esther Calhoun, who has lived in Uniontown for most of her life, the decision had personal consequences. Her family — black sharecroppers — had lived in the area around the landfill when she was a child, and she still had friends there. From the moment the coal ash began arriving, they complained of noxious fumes and trouble breathing. They stopped spending time outdoors. Rats invaded the trailer of an elderly woman. “They could have started piling garbage and coal ash anywhere on the landfill site, but they chose the closest place to people’s homes,” Calhoun said.

Esther Calhoun, the president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice

She had been watching Uniontown putrefy for two decades. An attempted upgrade to the overwhelmed sewage system had left human waste and industrial effluent slopping into creeks and pooling in brown, fetid ponds on the grazing pastures she had known as a child. The cheese plant got a permit to dispose of its whey by dispersing it onto unused farmland just a short distance from the high school. The town smelled “hoggish,” and Calhoun had an idea why “everything that’s no good comes down here”: because “we’re black, and we’re poor, and we’re not educated.”

In 2010, Calhoun decided to take action. That year, she joined Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a community group composed chiefly of local retirees. Its primary mission was to oppose the storage of coal ash at Arrowhead, which was bought out of bankruptcy that same year by Green Group Holdings, a national waste-management company. For years, Black Belt Citizens engaged in a fierce but civil dispute with Green Group. Eventually, however, the company’s patience with its activist rivals grew thin. In April 2016, it filed a $30 million defamation lawsuit against Calhoun and three others affiliated with Black Belt Citizens in federal court in Mobile.

The story of Green Group and Black Belt Citizens is growing ever more common as social media transforms traditional forums of speech. The internet has made it possible for activists to reach a mass audience — even a global one — at zero cost. At the same time, their targets have turned to the courts to impose a cost on that activism. It’s not cheap, after all, to defend even a frivolous lawsuit.

Houses near Arrowhead Landfill

But there is a second element to the story, a more unsettling and pernicious one — a shift in how speech values are prioritized in the United States. The Supreme Court’s First Amendment docket, once dominated by cases litigating the speech rights of individuals — flag burners and pamphleteers — is now rife with cases concerned with the speech rights of corporations, cases that put corporate entities on par with, and often elevate them above, their human counterparts. Meanwhile, the country has witnessed a broader retreat from the long-standing aversion to restricting free expression, both on campuses and in statehouses where legislators have worked to criminalize anti-corporate speech. As the norms that once checked litigious companies erode, activist groups like Black Belt Citizens are at increasing risk of being snuffed out.

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is a senior reporting fellow at ProPublica. He lives in New York City.

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