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The New Water Wars

Big Timber, Bottled Water, and Corporate Law Firms vs. the People of Weed.

In an ongoing effort to stop corporate law firms from using strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) to silence and punish people fighting to preserve their rights and environment, CLDC has filed a Superior Court of California appeal on behalf of the advocacy group Water for Citizens of Weed California (WCWC) and its members who were specifically targeted. This document provides a summary of the legal history of the issue, its significance, and where the case currently stands.

The Story: Big corporations and lawyers team up to seize a public water supply

Weed, California is a small timber-dependent city in rural, far-northern California. In 2016, Roseburg Forest Products (RFP), using legal bullying and exploiting a lack of clarity around water rights, began an aggressive effort to deprive the City of Weed of its main source of public drinking water — all so RFP could instead sell the spring water to the Crystal Geyser Roxane bottled water company. The historic spring, originating on the flanks of nearby Mt. Shasta, has provided the community with high-quality drinking water for the entirety of its 110-year history under an agreement with RFP’s predecessor International Paper.

When the citizens fought back, armed with strong evidence that International Paper had transferred the water right to the City before RFP bought the property, RFP brought in the SLAPP-happy Sacramento law firm Churchwell White LLP to sue not only the City of Weed but also WCWC and nine individual residents. The named people included several town elders, three of whom had previously served as mayor. None of these residents had asserted an individual claim over the water; all they had done was exercise their First Amendment rights in speaking out against RFP’s water grab. In 2017, a court agreed that the suit was a SLAPP and dismissed WCWC and the individuals. However, RFP and Churchwell White appealed, forcing WCWC and the nine residents to spend two additional years fighting the SLAPP charges. It was only after having successfully bullied the City of Weed into conceding its right to the water in late 2019 that RFP and Churchwell White finally agreed to withdraw their claims against the residents and WCWC.

“We were needlessly dragged through the court system and threatened with having to pay huge sums merely for speaking out. This was disruptive and frightening to our members, families, and community. We refused to be intimidated but still, defending ourselves from the lawsuit meant we had less time and money available for protecting our community’s water,” said Jim Taylor, WCWC President.

The First Amendment Project, a nonprofit law firm based in Oakland, California and a member of the Protect the Protest Task Force, and Gary Bostwick, a private lawyer, successfully defended WCWC and the Weed community members in the case pro bono. Following the dismissal of RFP’s appeal, CLDC took the next step in the fight, representing the members of WCWC in pursuing justice through the courts for this attack on both them individually and on a critical piece of their town’s infrastructure.

“Churchwell White likely was paid handsomely by the logging corporation for their frivolous SLAPP attempt. Their lawyers acted with malice when they absurdly sued nine community elders and WCWC the day after they spoke at a city council meeting advocating that the spring  —  their drinking water source — be saved,” said Lauren Regan, CLDC Executive Director.

The Legal Issue: Corporate lawyers abuse the laws to bully opponents

 SLAPPs are a popular bullying tactic for destructive corporations and other entities to silence community opposition. While the corporations rarely win these types of lawsuits, the money, time, and emotional toll can be significant for the community advocates on the receiving end of them. In recognition of this, California is one of the few states to have a “SLAPPback” law (CCP § 425.18), under which SLAPP defendants can counter-sue their attackers for malicious prosecution. It has rarely been used, and the Weed case stands to set important precedent.

The Weed water case is but one of many in which Churchwell White has engaged in this type of malicious public interest group harassment. CLDC and WCWC filed a SLAPPback suit against Churchwell White and two of its lead attorneys under this law in April 2020. Churchwell White succeeded in getting the case moved to a friendly Sacramento District Court venue, which pushed ahead with an inadequate virtual hearing due to the pandemic and predictably ruled against us in December. We have appealed the ruling to the California Appeals Court.

Impact: Making the case for First Amendment rights

“The widespread use of SLAPPs against community advocates is a clear threat to our First Amendment right to vocally challenge activities that threaten harm,” Regan said.

CLDC and the Protect the Protest Coalition are working to fight back against SLAPPs in order to deter corporations and overreaching law firms from using this tactic to thwart the public interest. We find the facts of this SLAPP assault on the city and people of Weed particularly appalling and believe it is important to prevail in holding such SLAPPers accountable. You can read our SLAPPback complaint HERE.