Report — From the March 2018 issue

Empty Suits

Defamation law and the price of dissent

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No matter how frivolous, lawsuits are menacing things — the hyperbolic sums, the uncertain byways of the law, the Delphic pronouncements of black-robed judges — and they have a tendency to haunt the people subjected to them, like trauma or an inauspicious omen. One evening, during a conversation with Eaton, McGee, and the Sisters, Calhoun said, unprompted, “I think we should all go see a psychiatrist.” At first she laughed, but when I prodded her to explain, wariness crept into her voice. “Fighting against all this stuff . . . ”

The lawsuit was a month and a half behind them, and it had ended in the group’s favor. Still, the process had taken its toll, and for the members of Black Belt Citizens, it was hard to discern a victory. “I’m glad it’s over,” Eaton said. “But at the same time, they used that to intimidate us, to hold us off for the timing of having their permit renewed. That was the whole plan: keep you busy doing one thing while we’re doing something else.”

The next evening, my last night in Uniontown, I attended a city council meeting. City hall looked as if it hadn’t seen a renovation since the 1970s: threadbare wall-to-wall carpeting, fake wood paneling, yellowing photographs of figures from Uniontown’s political past. Eaton arrived late. He looked exhausted, almost pained, as he walked stiffly to a seat in the front row and began videotaping. A few years earlier, in an effort to alleviate pressure on Uniontown’s swamped sewage system, a contractor had constructed a $4.8 million spray field, on which sprinklers disperse wastewater to be absorbed by the soil. ADEM had since declared it to be unusable because of the area’s unusually dense geology. Now the same contractor was proposing to install a wetland, yet another multimillion-dollar, percolation-dependent wastewater treatment system. Black Belt Citizens had helped arrange for two experts to discuss less expensive and more effective alternatives. The council members listened quietly as they discussed the town’s options. After a few perfunctory questions, the council voted without debate to “explore” the contractor’s wetland proposal.

After the meeting was over, Eaton, the Sisters, and several other members of Black Belt Citizens lingered, chatting beneath the hum of the fluorescent lights. Sally McGee gave me a fatigued look. “Same old — how it always is,” she said, her voice sagging.

Amid all the talk, I hadn’t noticed Calhoun leave. I found her outside a few minutes later, sitting on a low brick wall in front of city hall. She looked defeated in a way I hadn’t seen before. She had never intended to carry this weight for her town. “All I wanted is just to live my everyday life,” she’d told me at one point. “I don’t like fighting or doing all this different stuff. But somebody’s got to do it.” The lawsuit had only added to her burden. It was palpable in that moment, her shoulders bowed, her hands folded in her lap, her gaze fixed somewhere in the middle distance as the purple dusk gathered around her.

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

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