A Colorado legal foundation is striking back against a coalition of state attorneys general and far-left environmental activists that aims to silence critics of the Obama administration’s climate agenda.
The Mountain States Legal Foundation in Lakewood – one of more than 100 think tanks, academic institutions and scientists targeted nationwide – says the climate-speech crackdown is part of a broader government assault on free speech.
“Political correctness is one thing, but this is an effort by law enforcement officers to discourage people from having certain thoughts, or at least uttering those thoughts,” MSLF president William Perry Pendley said in an interview. “That’s absolutely shocking.”
What starts as a crackdown in the name of climate change can soon expand “to a whole host of issues,” Pendley warned. “What issue will some other attorney general decide is an abuse of your First Amendment rights that needs to be punished or restrained?”
Pendley’s interview followed a series of legal victories for the groups and individuals targeted by members of the “Green 20,” a group of liberal state attorneys general who are staunch defenders of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and other executive-branch actions on energy use and carbon emissions. The CPP, developed after Congress rejected a similar plan, has been stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court while legal challenges are heard.
Starting late last year, members of the Green 20 fired off a series of subpoenas targeting critics of the Obama climate agenda, effectively accusing them of fraud for disagreeing with environmental activists and their allies in government. On the surface, the subpoenas targeted energy company Exxon Mobil, but as Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel has noted, “[t]he real target is a broad array of conservative activist groups that are highly effective at mobilizing the grass-roots and countering liberal talking points” on energy and climate policy.
But in recent months, legal challenges from Exxon and the Competitive Enterprise Institute – one of the think tanks targeted for its advocacy work – and a growing backlash in the court of public opinion has forced the Green 20 into retreat. A subpoena targeting CEI was dropped in May. Another subpoena targeting roughly 100 organizations and individuals, including the MSLF, was withdrawn last week. And a third demand for documents, targeting a dozen more groups, has been put on ice pending the outcome of legal challenges.
These defeats followed months of criticism from the left and the right. The Bloomberg View editorial board called the climate-speech crackdown “preposterous” and “a dangerous arrogation of power.” The Financial Times of London called the move “short-sighted,” “alarming” and “extreme.” A professor at Brooklyn Law School called the whole affair “completely politically motivated” and the former president of the ACLU in Massachusetts criticized the so-called investigation as “outrageous” and “pure harassment.”
At the same time, the Green 20 came under fire from 13 Republican attorneys general, GOP members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and conservative editorial boards such as National Review, the Boston Herald and the Colorado Springs Gazette.
Even more damaging was the revelation that anti-fossil fuel interests have been quarterbacking the climate-speech crackdown from behind the scenes. E-mails showed environmental activists held a secret briefing for the attorneys general on the same day they held a press conference – headlined by Al Gore – to announce a major expansion of their so-called investigation. In fact, the activists spent years lobbying for the investigation and developing the legal strategy now being used by members of the Green 20 against the Obama administration’s critics. One of the groups at the center of this effort is the Climate Accountability Institute in Snowmass, Colo., just a few hours’ drive from the MSLF office in Lakewood.
It was also revealed that a series of media reports, used by members of the Green 20 to justify their investigation into so-called climate fraud, were actually funded by left-wing foundations that oppose the fossil fuel industry. At least two of those foundations – the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Foundation – are major donors to the groups who lobbied for the climate-speech crackdown and came up with the legal strategy behind it.
In other words, the investigation into so-called climate fraud was the product of an echo chamber, just like the New York fracking ban, which I have written and testified about for the industry-backed Energy In Depth program.
The ringleader of the Green 20 – New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) – continues to fight on. Despite the recent legal defeats and growing backlash against his work, Schneiderman is still actively using the powers of his office to pursue Exxon and critics of the Obama climate agenda. By doing so, he maintains their speech is fraud and doesn’t deserve the protection of the First Amendment.
“It’s Orwellian,” says Pendley, who does not believe the MSLF and other targeted groups are close to being out of the woods. “Of course we have the right to say these things, but not according to the attorney general of New York. If we say these things, he claims we’re abusing our First Amendment rights.”
Pendley sees a direct connection between the so-called climate fraud investigation and other efforts to target and silence conservative and free-market groups. One member of the Green 20, California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), was recently rebuked by a federal judge for demanding a list of members and supporters of Americans for Prosperity, and in so doing, violating the First Amendment. The same motivation was behind the targeting of hundreds of conservative non-profits by the Internal Revenue Service heading into the 2012 election, Pendley said.
“From the federal IRS to these state attorneys general, they’d like nothing more than to silence their critics,” he said.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.