New York Fracking Gag Order Violates Freedom of Speech

Environmental Groups Sue Sanford Town Board for Banning Public Discussion of Fracking, While Supporting Industry Expansion

SANFORD, NY (February 12, 2013) – The Town of Sanford, New York, is violating its residents’ First Amendment right to free speech by placing a gag order on discussion of proposed fracking in the state at town board meetings, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy.

“If people are silenced by their own elected representatives, how can they trust them to act in their best interests?” said NRDC senior attorney Kate Sinding. “The Sanford Town Board has taken away residents’ right to speak up on one of the most controversial and daunting issues facing them today, in the very forum designed to give them that opportunity. This is particularly troubling given the board’s history of unwavering support for fracking.”

On September 11, 2012, the Sanford Town Board unanimously passed a resolution forbidding further discussion about natural gas development during the public participation portion of Town Board.

The September vote was the most recent in a series of “pro-fracking” town board resolutions that actively lobbied the state to move forward with proposed natural gas extraction. As early as Governor Paterson’s administration, the Town Board urged the governor and legislature to open the state up to development. Last May, the board passed a resolution urging Governor Cuomo to lift the de-facto moratorium on fracking. Then on September 5th — days before the gag order passed—Town Supervisor Dewey Decker signed on to a letter urging Governor Cuomo to legalize fracking in the state.

In addition, the Sanford Town Board has shown ongoing support of fracking industry activities within its borders. These include leasing town land to an oil and gas company, and granting industry access to town resources for use in development.  Between 2008 and 2010, Sanford leased town land to XTO Energy for oil and natural gas extraction and licensed the company to use local roads for fracking-related activities.  Between 2011 and 2012, the town passed a resolution in support of Bluestone Gas Corporation’s application to build a local pipeline, granted Bluestone a waiver for certain road and insurance requirements and entered into an agreement with the company for road-use privileges. 

“At the September 2012 Sanford town meeting, when the board chose to cut off discussion of fracking and related issues, they ended any chance that I might have to affect the future value of my home, or the quality of the air I breathe, or the water I drink,” said Sanford resident Mike Musante, who attended the September meeting. “Without debate there is no democracy, only rule by autocrats.”

“I have not accepted that this board decision is legal or ethical. I feel bullied, stifled and frustrated. We should not have to fight for our basic First Amendment right of assembling peacefully and verbally petitioning the government. I plan to take that substantial energy of frustration and work toward a government that is responsive to the people,” said Barbara Lester, a Sanford resident. 

“We regret that the Sanford Town Board, in removing public participation from the democratic process, has left no alternative but litigation,” said Tom Wilinsky of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy.

NRDC and CCSE filed their lawsuit on behalf of their members who are residents of Sanford, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Sanford is located in Broome County, in New York’s Southern Tier, along the Pennsylvania border and deep within the Marcellus Shale formation. It is a small, rural town with a population of about 2,400.

WATCH: Video of Silenced Sanford Residents on Kate Sinding’s blog, "You're silencing us" - Protecting Free Speech Rights in Sanford, New York.”