Pennsylvania

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Anti-drilling group settles surveillance litigation with state

"We believe that collecting and disseminating information about groups engaged in lawful activities ... can and does have a chilling effect upon freedom of speech," says Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition vice president Diane Dreier

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

"We believe that collecting and disseminating information about groups engaged in lawful activities can and does have a chilling effect upon freedom of speech," says Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition vice president Diane Dreier.

An anti-gas drilling group from northeastern Pennsylvania has reached a settlement agreement with state law enforcement officials, after it accused them of conducting unconstitutional surveillance on its members.

The litigation stems from 2011 when the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency’s Office of Homeland Security issued intelligence bulletins labeling the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition (GDAC) as a potential terrorist threat. The agency had contracted with an Israeli-American security firm– the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response— to compile the bulletins.

Then-governor Rendell publicly apologized and cancelled the firm’s state contract.

GDAC vice president, Diane Drier, says the group has always behaved in a lawful and peaceful manner. She describes its mission as educating the public about “the negative consequences of natural gas extraction.”

“This conduct by the Pennsylvania state government was tantamount to trampling on our constitutional rights.” she told reporters at a press conference Thursday in Harrisburg. “Disseminating information about groups engaged in lawful activities can and does have a chilling effect upon freedom of speech.”

While the terms of the settlement agreement are confidential, former PEMA director Glenn Cannon sent a letter to GDAC last month clearing the group of any wrongdoing.

“This agency has no information or reason to believe that GDAC at any time in the past or currently could be fairly characterized a ‘terrorist organization,'” he wrote.

Cannon was a Corbett appointee and was recently replaced by Richard Flinn, who serves in Governor Tom Wolf’s new administration.  A PEMA spokesman tells StateImpact the agency is simply “glad to see the matter put to rest.”

GDAC’s attorney Paul Rossi says the group intends to continue its lawsuit against the former head of the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response. Rossi says he’s also disturbed to hear about recent reports state law enforcement officials are working with gas companies to collect information about other environmental groups and activists who oppose drilling.

“I’m about as flabbergasted as an attorney can be at the serial violations of First Amendment rights in this state,” he says. “It’s not that hard to comply with the First Amendment.”

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