"You're silencing us" - Protecting Free Speech Rights in Sanford, New York

Today, as part of our Community Fracking Defense Project, NRDC, together with Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy (CCSE), filed a lawsuit to protect a community’s right to free speech.

What does that have to with fracking? 

Speaking out about fracking is exactly what’s being restricted by the Town Board of a small community called Sanford in Broome County, New York.

Last September, after taking a series of pro-fracking actions over a four-year period, Sanford’s Town Board abruptly imposed a gag order silencing its citizens from discussing the red-hot issue of proposed new fracking in New York and the town. Today’s lawsuit asserts that this action deprives Sanford’s residents of their constitutional right to free speech. 

By way of background, Sanford is a bucolic community of twenty-four hundred people in New York’s southern tier. It hugs the west branch of the Delaware River, giving the town beautiful vistas and world-class fly fishing. Sanford is also located deep within the heart of the Marcellus Shale and risks being on the front line if fracking comes to New York. The residents of Sanford are deeply divided by this possibility which threatens to change their town forever.

Unfortunately Sanford’s town board is not so deeply divided, having aggressively favored fracking in Sanford and statewide.  Sanford’s town board has called on the state three times to begin fracking – and to frack Sanford. First, the board urged the state during Governor Paterson’s administration to “stand aside” and allow drilling, and then again called on the state to hurry up and drill in May of 2012. Finally, on September 5, 2012 Sanford Supervisor Dewey Decker signed a letter to Governor Cuomo asking “on behalf of [his] constituents” that the governor allow fracking. The Town Board has also taken concrete steps to bring fracking to Sanford, having leased town land, repeatedly made agreements with gas companies, and supported natural gas pipelines through the town.

When residents turned out in droves to open public town board meetings in response to the Board’s actions, the Board decided it had had enough and shut down the debate. Although the Board had specifically set aside a portion of its meetings to hear from the public, in September 2012, it unanimously forbade the public from discussing the one most pressing issue that had brought the town out in force – natural gas development. 

Residents of Sanford reacted to this gag order with shock, anger, and dismay. They feel that their right to speak and be heard, and their right to participate in their democracy, has been violated. At the meeting where the board imposed this gag order a resident can be heard expressing their frustrations, saying simply: “you’re silencing us.”


NRDC and CCSE are suing now to overturn this gag order. If the Town of Sanford opts to open its Town Board meetings to public comment, it must obey the Constitutions of the United States and New York State. The Town should not be allowed to open a public forum to hear from its citizens on this most contentious of issues, take a position thereon, and then prevent citizens from further discussion of this issue that is of such vital importance to the town’s future.

In Sanford resident Melissa Bishop’s compelling words: “That someone could just come in and say, ‘OK, no more discussion at all,’ really galled a lot of people.  And they knew even if there wasn’t a right or a wrong to the fracking discussion, they certainly knew there was a right or wrong as to the issue of free speech, and this was definitely wrong.”

Meantime, we are literally days away from a potential decision by Governor Cuomo as to whether to proceed with new fracking in New York. Take action now to ask the Governor not to make any final decisions without first opening the review of fracking health impacts to the public and New York State-based health professionals.

This blog post was written with the assistance of NRDC Legal Fellow, Jon Krois, who also contributed substantially to the lawsuit itself.

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