Michael J. Fitzgerald of Valois and Watkins Glen, New York wrote the following article for his ‘Write On’ column which appears in The Finger Lakes Times every Friday. This article was published on Friday, August 9, 2013. It was posted here with Mr. Fitzgerald’s and The Finger Lakes Times’ permission.
Last week Cayuta Town Justice Robert Johnson slapped Hector resident Jeremy Alderson with an “order of protection,” a legal document the goal of which is to keep Alderson from protesting at an Inergy LP natural gas storage facility north of Watkins Glen.
The order of protection actually names the local manager of Inergy as being a person from whom Alderson must keep his distance. But the order includes the manager’s place of business — the gas storage facility — because the law doesn’t allow for orders of protection for corporations, just people.
Alderson was arrested in July for trespassing, a charge to which he pleaded not guilty in the Cayuta court. He was arrested for trespassing last September at the same Inergy facility, convicted in Reading Town Court and is appealing that decision.
And so at the urging of the Schuyler County District Attorney’s office, Justice Johnson’s order says that until an October trial is concluded, Alderson cannot go within 100 feet of the Inergy manager, Inergy or its salt caverns on NY Route 14.
Alderson, by the way, has never met the manager of Inergy.
Arrested and convicted once. Then arrested again.
The judge’s order might seem, well, almost reasonable.
What’s unreasonable — and arguably unconstitutional (though that’s for other courts to consider) — is that the judge’s order also forbids “third party contact.” It effectively forbids Alderson from telling other people that they should go protest at the Inergy site.
To tell them to do so would be criminal contempt of court, the potential consequences of which (a jail term and/or a hefty fine) the judge made sure Alderson understood.
This firm placement of legal duct tape by the judge across Alderson’s lips is particularly troubling because Alderson is the editor and publisher of “The No Frack Almanac,” a quarterly newspaper aimed at provided news and commentary about hydrofracking for natural gas and related industries — industries such as storage of natural gas and liquid propane gas.
As you might have guessed, Inergy’s name pops up in that publication because of its stated corporate goals of wanting to store large volumes of natural gas and LPG in salt caverns adjacent to Seneca Lake.
I am not a First Amendment scholar, although I’ve certainly had experience with First Amendment issues as a journalist, but I’m sure that putting a muzzle on a citizen to keep that person from criticizing a corporation — or to keep him from suggesting others do so — is just wrong. In fact, wasn’t it this kind of muzzling of free speech and a host of other oppressive measures on American colonists by the British that prompted the Bill of Rights being written after the Revolutionary War?
The Missouri-based company is understandably eager to move ahead with its elaborate industrial plans to store massive amounts of LPG and natural gas in salt caverns adjacent to Seneca Lake. Those plans have drawn plenty of protests since first being unveiled in 2011 with more than a dozen other similar trespassing arrests.
Well-known Ithaca biologist and environmental author Sandra Steingraber was arrested in March with 11 others, convicted of trespassing and went to jail rather than pay a $375 fine.
There were no pleas from the Schuyler County District Attorney’s office to issue similar orders of protection aimed at these other protesters.
But then, the other protesters don’t publish newspapers.
Alderson’s attorney is expected to quickly file an appeal in an attempt to quash the judge’s order. In the meantime, one whispered peep of encouragement to people to protest Inergy’s gas and LPG plans could land Alderson in legal hot water — and maybe in jail, for contempt.
Ironically, Alderson has stated many times he is willing to go to jail if it will help stop Inergy from moving ahead with its gas storage projects.
But he never dreamed a judge would tell him he could not talk about it.