Metro

SJC rules in favor of environmental activists who questioned part of Deepwater Horizon cleanup

The right to petition the government, established 1,000 years ago in England, protects two bloggers who posted an item on Huffington Post that criticized a company involved in the Deepwater Horizon cleanup, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.

The company, Cardno ChemRisk LLC, had sued the bloggers — former Boston Public Schools math teacher Karen Savage and Louisiana environmental activist Cherri Foytlin — for defamation. But the Supreme Judicial Court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the women were exercising their right to petition the government in their 2013 blog item, which ran in the Huffington Post.

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In an unanimous decision, the court also ruled that Savage and Foytlin qualified for protection under the state’s Anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) statute because they called for the public and government to heed the health risks facing workers who cleaned up the spill.

“It’s a complete victory,’’ said John H. Reichman, a lawyer who represented the women. “The court made it clear that a blogger who is writing about an issue of public concern, and seeking to get the public involved . . . that blogger will be protected.”

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Sarah R. Wunsch, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which filed a brief on the bloggers’ behalf, said the decision seeks to have lower courts interpret the anti-SLAPP statute broadly and extend its protections even if the author does not have a personal stake in the outcome.

“This is a terrific decision and it comes at a very important time, given the Trump presidency,’’ Wunsch said. “People are out in force, speaking out, trying to demand government action or to oppose government action. This is an era when the right to petition and the right to speak are going to need a lot of protection.’’

Lawyers for Cardno ChemRisk could not be reached for comment.

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According to the ruling, Savage and Foytlin co-wrote a post about the company’s history based on newspaper accounts, environmental journals, and nonprofit groups that raised questions about ChemRisk’s assessment of toxic exposure cleanup workers could face.

The company filed the defamation suit after Foytlin, the primary author, refused to retract the piece. Suffolk Superior Court Judge Edward P. Leibensperger, relying on an earlier SJC ruling, ruled in the company’s favor, concluding that the two women were journalists who did not qualify for anti-SLAPP protections.

The highest court overturned that decision on First Amendment grounds.

“The United States Constitution protects the right to petition to redress grievances whether those grievances be private or public in nature,’’ wrote Justice Barbara Lenk. “It has been a fundamental aspect of liberty for the better part of 1,000 years.”

“Speaking for themselves and at their own behest, Foytlin and Savage have established that they exercised their own right to petition when they wrote the article at issue,” she added.

ChemRisk “provided minimal evidence that the defendants lacked a reasonable basis in fact for the challenged statements,” she added. The post included supporting documents, including a 2012 Chicago Tribune series that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

The SJC ordered ChemRisk to pay Foytlin and Savage’s legal fees.

John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.
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