A Victory for Free Speech

NRDC's Community Fracking Defense Project makes sure concerned residents aren't silenced in controversial decisions about oil and gas drilling.

A version of this story was originally published by NRDC's onEarth magazine.

An anti-fracking sign at the Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, New York James Leynse/Corbis

As the town clerk of Sanford, New York, began her customary reading of the evening's agenda on September 11, 2012, it seemed, at first, like just another routine gathering of the town board. But the residents of Sanford—130 miles southwest of Albany (population: 2,407)—got quite a jolt.

Within minutes, four board members, who appeared more engaged by their meeting binders than by the group of citizens sitting before them, unanimously voted to ban discussion of fracking at town meetings. When Supervisor Dewey Decker invited comments—on "anything other than gas"—several residents protested their sudden inability to speak on the subject.

"This isn't about gas. This is about our right to free speech," said Gail Musante, a member of the anti-fracking group Sanford-Oquaga Area Concerned Citizens.

Sanford's action was the first time a town board in the state had placed a formal ban on discussing the controversial natural gas–drilling technique known as fracking, which involves injecting chemicals deep underground in order to break up shale rock formations and recover more of the fossil fuel.

The town first began leasing land for natural gas extraction in 2008 to a company called XTO Energy, which became a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil in 2010. While Sanford officials support fracking, residents are divided, with many worried about the impact on their health, farms, and property values.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that a week prior to the September 2012 board meeting, Decker, who had leased his own land for fracking, wrote a letter to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urging him to speed up natural gas development in Sanford. (Instead, the governor's administration would later heed the advice of science and health experts and the concerns of citizens like those in Sanford and prohibit fracking across New York State.)

"Even though they're banning people on both sides of the issue from talking, it's clear from the board's actions that they want to cut off discussion by those who oppose fracking," said Kate Sinding, director of NRDC's Community Fracking Defense Project, which provides an array of tools to residents who don't want fracking in their communities—and it stepped in to help Sanford citizens fight the fracking gag rule.

In February 2013, NRDC and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy sued Sanford in U.S. District Court on grounds that the board was violating the First Amendment rights of the town's citizens. Two months later, the board rescinded the gag order. Sinding suspects that town officials decided that going to court would not, in the end, prove a wise investment of their time and money. NRDC, in turn, withdrew its lawsuit.

"I think we demonstrated that public discussion of even a divisive issue like fracking need not disrupt town business," Sinding says. "Towns can still find a way to conduct their meetings while allowing residents the right to share a variety of viewpoints on subjects that concern their well-being."

And indeed, it was discussions like the one in Sanford that eventually led to the statewide decision that the risks of fracking weren't worth it. Score one for citizens' rights.

NRDC's Community Fracking Defense Project was launched in 2012 to help communities gain controls or protections from fracking in their areas. Residents or elected officials interested in more information about the project can contact NRDC here.

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