Student Protester Sued by Oil Company Asks Judge to Drop Suit

Extraction Oil and Gas sued Cullen Lobe for locking himself to a bulldozer at a new fracking site in Weld County last month. Now the 23-year-old Colorado State University journalism student is asking a judge to dismiss the civil lawsuit on First Amendment grounds.

Lobe's attorney has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that it's frivolous, meant to harass Lobe for his anti-fracking community organizing and "impermissibly burdens and violates First Amendment rights to petition, expression and association with regard to matters of grave public concern." Attorney Jason Flores-Williams says the lawsuit is a classic SLAPP — short for "strategic lawsuit against public participation" — case designed to burden political dissenters with legal fees in an attempt to bully them into silence.

The lawsuit "is going after the community and attempting to silence community criticism and people raising their voices," Flores-Williams says. "The issues here are bigger than Cullen; they go to the issue of the right of expression and the right of a community to raise its voice against injustice, which, when it comes down to it, is the most fundamental of American rights. There's a reason the First Amendment is the first amendment.”

Lobe is being sued because he locked himself to a bulldozer at Extraction's fracking site about 1,000 feet from Bella Romero Academy in Greeley, a school whose students are predominantly from low-income immigrant families, to protest what he has called "environmental racism." He's also part of a handful of demonstrators who've been charged with criminal misdemeanors for allegedly trespassing on private property while protesting the fracking development; those four protesters were named in the civil lawsuit as well. They include Brian Hedden, a filmmaker who specializes in environmental and social-justice documentaries; John Lamb, a lawyer with the National Lawyers Guild, who was acting as a legal observer during the protest; Jeremy Mack, an educator who's said he was there as an independent journalist to document the protest; and Mary Delffs, a 24-year-old environmental activist in Fort Collins who made the banner that the group unfurled over the bulldozer reading "People Over Pipelines."

"That's what this is about: Extraction trying to silence us and terrify us so we can be an example for other people who want to get involved — but it's not going to work," Delffs says. After the protest, she was followed by a private investigator who served her the lawsuit outside a pottery studio in Fort Collins.

"It feels really scary and very just — I don't even know what words to use, but heavy and tragic — that we are simply trying to ensure that these children don't have health problems, and we're being targeted as though we’re doing something wrong by someone with so much power," she says.

Extraction Oil and Gas did not return calls for comment, though it has previously called the protesters "extremists." Lamb is being represented by Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP, one of the top civil-rights and First Amendment law firms in the state; both he and his attorney declined to comment. A court date for the civil lawsuit has yet to be set.

Extraction Oil and Gas isn't just facing community pushback in Greeley. Since 2016, Broomfield residents have protested six drilling sites totaling 84 wells in that county. Broomfield officials have called on the state to freeze permitting on the sites until the company can come into compliance with stringent local regulations, especially given the company's track record. A December explosion near Windsor left a field worker severely burned, unleashed a plume of smoke, and shook homes miles away from the site.

Extraction is also coming under fire from Broomfield residents after the city paid for a town hall hosted by pro-industry state senator Vicki Marble to present "the facts" on oil and gas development in the area. It was never disclosed to attendees that the town hall was completely paid for by Extraction Oil and Gas. Marble was recently found in violation of the state's ethics laws by the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission for accepting a gift — in this context, the event's private room, food and drinks totaling upwards of $1,000 — that far exceeds constitutional limits.
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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi