Libel is claimed, an editor resigns
A threat of legal action fractures the delicate web of environmental activism.
Whatcom Watch is a monthly journal of environmental activism and public policy analysis. The publication is produced by volunteers with oversight by a volunteer board of directors and is now in its 22nd year of publication. The publication, which has admirably and thoroughly covered the issue of Northwest coal export, met one of its greatest crises earlier this year with the threat of legal action in response to a speculative article on the coal industry that appeared in January.
Editor Richard Jehn resigned over the weekend in apparent frustration over criticism of his leadership from members of the volunteer board. He noted he had received no constructive guidance from the board with how he should respond to a strong warning from Craig Cole, a consultant for the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, who objected to speculations in the article. Jehn was not available for additional comment.
The article attempted to explore a possible nexus between the organizing elements of far-right extremists and the political activity of Pacific International Terminals (PIT), a subsidiary of Seattle-based SSA Marine, the applicants for the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point. The terminal, which could ship millions of tons of coal per year to markets in Asia, is proposed for construction on a site considered sacred to the Lummi Nation. In April 2013, the Whatcom Tea Party helped promote a conference for the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (CERA), a national association that challenges the federal treaty rights of Native Americans. The Tea Party also helped promote a slate of conservative candidates for local offices last year, an effort organized through the political action committees Save Whatcom and Whatcom First. Those PACs received more than $145,000 in late campaign donations from shipping and railroad interests, including SSA Marine and BNSF. In December, Save Whatcom and Whatcom First were fined $4,500 for improperly reporting those campaign contributions to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission.
“If any or all of this is part of the actual strategy of SSA/PIT and BNSF, it’s even more important than ever for people to stand with the Lummi Nation and other Indian Tribes and Indian Nations in opposition to the proposed 48-million-ton coal terminal along the Salish Sea shoreline,” the article suggested. Craig Cole was not mentioned in the January Whatcom Watch article.
“Whatcom Watch, both in its print and online editions, is an expression of the freedom of speech guaranteed by our constitution over 200 years ago,” the publication explains in its mission statement. “Articles published in the paper typically cover local governmental and environmental issues. The opportunity to be published in Whatcom Watch is open to all citizens who are concerned about an issue and who want to write an article.”
Cole strongly objected to the speculative nature of the article, which placed his client’s political activity in proximity to the anti-Indian organizing of the far right. His letter was in the form of a personal communication to Whatcom Watch, drafted on the letterhead of Cole’s consulting company.
“PIT and its affiliates have not, in fact, hired anti-Indian racists,” Cole stated in his protest of the article. “Nor is there a public relations campaign against the Lummi Nation or the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. There is not a speck of truth to the speculation that they have done either of these things.
“As a matter of principle, the project proponents would not have any involvement that would imply anything other than respect for tribal rights and culture,” Cole wrote. “The company feels that, in the end, tribal and project interests can be harmonized and it continues to reach out to the affected tribes in this spirit.”
Cole sketched his long history with the tribes, including his work with the Northwest Indian College and tribal governments. He requested the speculative tone of the article be more directly noted as a hypothetical work of fiction and warned of possible legal consequences in the event of further allegations of anti-tribal organizing by his clients.
Cole distributed his letter to other media in early February, including Cascadia Weekly.
“Racism,” Cole commented, “has always been a gut-wrenching evil for me. I am certainly not a perfect person, but this is something that can’t be hung on me.”
Cole’s letter touched off a firestorm within the community of local activists, many of whom considered his threat of legal consequences a form of media intimidation. In particular, critics were puzzled that the article did not mention Cole and therefore, they believe, could not libel Cole. The volunteer board of Whatcom Watch struggled for an appropriate response and sought, with their limited resources, legal counsel.
“I understand anyone thinking Whatcom Watch has been ‘sitting on it’ or ‘crouching down,’ as relevant to appearances, but that is not what’s been happening,” former board member Ellen Murphy explained. “We are eager to respond, eager to share information. There pure and simply have been delays in our ability to do those things. I trust we will act soon and that citizen journalism will be the better for it.”
“I want to be clear that it was not Craig Cole and his threatened lawsuit that have resulted in this situation,” board member Wendy Harris noted of the resignation of Jehn. “Internal instability and resignations by both Richard and staff members predate the letters from Cole.”
Jehn had offered to resign in 2013.
Q: What is Cascadia Weekly’s involvement with Whatcom Watch?
A: The Weekly has always supported Whatcom Watch and its long, exemplary benefit to the community. Created by passionate volunteers, it is a smart, beautiful publication. The Weekly helps distribute the print publication at no cost to the Watch. We’re proud to help.
Q: Is there merit in Craig Cole’s claims Whatcom Watch libeled him?
A: In our opinion, for what it is worth, no. There is no merit in the claim.
Q: Craig Cole asked for a retraction. Should a retraction be offered?
A: Factual statements do not require retraction. If a statement is factually inaccurate and a correction or clarification is requested, a correction or clarification should be considered good practice, in our opinion. Whatcom Watch also considers this good practice. The monthly publication has approached Cole to resolve the matter.
Q: The letter was sent a month ago. Why have you not reported on it?
A: It was the opinion of the editor that the matter was an internal, business concern of Whatcom Watch and its volunteer board, and they should have first bite at the apple on their own story of a libel challenge.
Q: Why do you report on it now?
A: The resignation of Editor Richard Jehn was a public event; and a sign the internal matters of Whatcom Watch have erupted into wider view.
Q: There were allegations that the Weekly editor had some involvement to mediate between Cole and the Watch.
A: There is no truth to the allegation. The editor was of the opinion that matters between Cole and the Watch could be made better about as easily as they could be made worse. If asked, that would be the opinion he would give.
Q: This is a clear case of media intimidation by the coal industry.
A: Is it? Perhaps. Or was this a strongly worded notice from a member of the community with long history and deep roots that a particular line of enquiry was offensive to him? We were not directly involved, so we cannot comment with precision, but the possibility of wider implications is what drives greater interest in this story. In any case, we support Whatcom Watch and what they do.
You can support Whatcom Watch through your subscription, http://www.whatcomwatch.org , and through your time as a volunteer and contributor.
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