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There is no “Fire!” in climate change

Your First Amendment freedom of speech ends when you falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. At least that’s what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Schenck v. U.S. in 1919.

It was a bad decision by the Supreme Court since it sent a Socialist to prison for distributing a pamphlet opposing the World War 1 draft. Comparing “Fire!” yelled in a theater to the “clear and present danger” posed by an antiwar pamphlet was a bit of a stretch. The ruling was carried even further to censor and even imprison critics of the government. It 1969, it was overturned by the Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio. From Atlantic magazine:

There, the Court held that inflammatory speech–and even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan–is protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

Which brings me to a recent opinion piece in the Missoulian entitled, “Prosecution would deny free speech to skeptical Americans.” It was written by H. Sterling Burnett, “a research fellow on energy and the environment” at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank funded by the likes of the Koch brothers, The Walton family (Wal-Mart), ExxonMobil and Phillip Morris.

The column paints a picture of climate change deniers being prosecuted for their beliefs:

The most recent evidence of this came last month when Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee and said the Department of Justice has discussed pursuing legal action against companies, research institutions and scientists who debate whether humans are causing catastrophic climate change.

The revelation that the Obama administration has asked the FBI to investigate people involved in an ongoing scientific debate should shock the sensibilities of all Americans.

It was not Obama nor Lynch who first broached the idea of prosecuting climate realists for exercising their free-speech rights; that dishonor falls to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who in a May 2015 op-ed published in The Washington Post argued that the fossil-fuel industry is collaborating with conservative think tanks to disseminate research contradicting the scientific consensus on man-caused climate change.

“Climate realists,” writes sheldon (an Orwellian term if ever I saw one) are going to be hauled into court for exercising their First Amendment rights. If the Ku Klux Klan gets a waiver on hate speech, I’m certainly not worried about climate science deniers being persecuted or prosecuted, but the message of fear and paranoia does resonate with the anti-critical thinking crowd.

Of course, the fossil fuel industry IS collaborating “with conservative think tanks to disseminate research contradicting the scientific consensus on man-caused climate change.” Since Heartland won’t reveal its donors, we don’t know exactly how much or who in the oil industry contributes but leaked papers show where some of the money is coming from and where it’s going:

The documents contained details of payments to support climate skeptics and their programs, namely the founder of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change Craig Idso ($11,600 per month), physicist Fred Singer ($5,000 plus expenses per month), geologist Robert M. Carter ($1,667 per month) and $90,000 to blogger and former meteorologist Anthony Watts. The documents also revealed the Heartland Institute’s plan to develop curriculum materials to be provided to teachers in the United States to promote climate skepticism, plans confirmed by the Associated Press.

This shouldn’t be surprising as Heartland did the same with the tobacco industry in the 1990s. From Wikipedia:

 … the Heartland Institute worked with tobacco company Philip Morris to question the links between smoking, secondhand smoke and health risks. Philip Morris commissioned Heartland to write and distribute reports. Heartland published a policy study which summarized a jointly prepared report by the Association of Private Enterprise Education and Philip Morris. The Heartland Institute also undertook a variety of other activities on behalf of the tobacco industry, including meeting with legislators, holding off-the-record briefings, and producing op-eds, radio interviews, and letters.

In the opposing opinion column, Michael Kraft, a professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, sites precedent for holding industry accountable:

Dismissal of well-established climate science has parallels to decades of debate over tobacco use and its effects on health. Tobacco companies long denied any causal relation between smoking and disease even when their own studies showed the opposite to be true.

Similarly, some fossil fuel companies for decades publicly rejected established climate science and the role of burning fossil fuels in anthropogenic climate change while their internal studies confirmed both.

The tobacco companies eventually paid a steep price for their actions. In 1999, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against them, charging that they “engaged in and executed” a “massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes,” in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

Specifically, the lawsuit said the companies engaged in a conspiracy to launch a public relations campaign challenging scientific evidence that demonstrated the health risks of smoking at the same time that their own research confirmed smoking’s danger.

I’ll defend a climate denier’s right to spew his or her fallacies, and they shouldn’t be sued, fined or imprisoned for their misstatements. But what these industry funded think tanks are doing is the opposite of yelling “Fire!” They’re claiming there is no fire, at least not human caused, as the planet burns and melts around them. Whether this “speech” is protected under the First Amendment or it’s a violation of RICO is beyond my legal capabilities, but there’s certainly collusion and it’s despicable. It’s these 501(c)(3) non-profit, dark money “charities” that need to be held accountable.

Finally, I’ve really had it with the weekly ‘point-counterpoint’ columns that run on the Opinion Page. They usually have a learned Ph.D economist or scientist or political expert with no ax to grind countered by some paid hack from Cato or Heritage or Heartland, as if they deserve equal weight in such matters. Then there are the bios at the end of each column. For example, “H. Sterling Burnett is a research fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan research center Arlington, Ill.” One simply has to Google The Heartland Institute to see just how “nonpartisan” it is.


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  • It’s not a free speech issue at all.
    It is a question of whether companies may withhold company-financed factual information from its stockholders (and the public) that has a direct influence on that company’s future value.
    It should also be a question whether company resources should be expended in massive disinformation efforts that cannot withstand scientific scrutiny, to the detriment of the company’s investors.

    • Just think Gabby if Peabody Coal hadn’t withheld all those “facts” they wouldn’t be going bankrupt right now.

  • I shared this column by Pete Talbot with medium infromation voters, and it worked! It gave them a new path to follow and think some more!
    To my mind, cooking the books to drive up share price of coal stocks, by way of disinforming the stockholders, is an additional reason to levy criticism against the coal oligopoly.
    But that is just words. What happened was action. Natural gas prices plumeted and power companies switched from coal to natural gas to heat water to make steam to make electricity. Steel production plumeted along with the demand for high BTU coal needed for steel production.
    But coal companies chose to overproduce.
    Inventory assets balooned!
    Institutional investors saw the problems and started pulling out of coal investments 3-5 years ago.
    Two years back some coal stocks fell below book value.

    In sequenece, the coal companies locked into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, in part
    to take money away from suppliers and creditors,
    and transfer it to owners and officers of Coal Companies.

  • Not my video insert! It’s about as relevant as some of the Posts from
    the guy who forgets what the Billings Gazette reported about the Coal industry problems and how it cheats on Fed royalty tax payments.

    And the recent news that Powder River coal may have pulled off an even bigger cheat. Possibly understating volme of coal removed from Federal coal by 40%.
    That’s like tax evasion.

    • It’s tax evasion when Rep. do it. But if your Warren Buffet you get a pass.

      “The best scenario for what’s left of the coal industry is if Republicans win the White House and maintain control of Congress. That would likely relieve the regulatory pressure on the industry and some of the natural gas glut since Republicans would greenlight natural gas exports.

      Even if Democrats win, the coal industry is not likely going away, although its management will change dramatically. As I forecast here last year, no one will leave trillions of dollars worth of coal in the ground, especially since future governments will need cash to run the welfare state. So instead, Democrat-friendly billionaires will buy coal companies for a song, politically rehabilitate the fuel, donate to their political allies, and profit.”-Steve Malloy.

  • Yes, there is to a fire!
    Some Petro Corporations have known for damn near five generations
    that CO2 emissions force global warming!
    That CO2 emissions tax natural cooling cycles around and about “our” planet.

  • Another view of reality at:

    But of more relative importance, how come oceans and atmosphere warming irrrespective of the big three patterns that have recently in geo time, brought ice age after ice age, unil some 12,000 years ago.
    Now so much warming as to reduce the mass of the Greenland ice sheets so much, as to trigger our magnetic pole to reverse from ever moving Westward,to now moving Eastward.
    And five decades ago some USA Corporations were advised of effects of CO2 emission.

  • Best view for now of how much solar irradiance arrives on the surface of this earth:…22705.47938.0.50044.….0…1ac.1.64.img..4.11.2232.HJKzqYow8GE#imgrc=kDPtJ1Mi_QPSNM%3A
    Looks like less received solar energy, fewer watts//meter, yes maybe from cloud defraction of some type of solar energy, but nevertheless, and back to the point,
    there is to a fire.
    And has been for decades. But now the consequences of global climate warming look worse and worse.
    Views of only a few years ago, that ignored new data and studies evidencing a warmed ocean and atmoshphere, are now way so deplorable, so weak.
    Such views and assumptions continue upon
    the Editorial and the Opinion pages of the newspaper i daily read.

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Pete Talbot

'Papa’ Pete Talbot is first and foremost a grandfather to five wonderful grandchildren. Like many Montanans, he has held numerous jobs over the years: film and video producer, a partner in a marketing and advertising firm, a builder and a property manager. He’s served on local and statewide Democratic Party boards. Pete has also been blogging at various sites for over a decade. Ping-pong and skiing are his favorite diversions. He enjoys bourbon.

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