ACLU Slams ICE's Private Prison Company Threatening Florida Activists With Lawsuit

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The Dream Defenders, a Florida civil rights group formed near the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, has helped turn the GEO Group, Immigration and Customs Enforcement's single largest contractor, from a largely unknown private prison firm hated by justice-reform activists into a toxic company from which even some Republican politicians are now refusing donations.

GEO is, clearly, not happy about this work. So this past August 3, the multibillion-dollar, for-profit prison giant sent Dream Defenders a cease-and-desist letter claiming the activists were "libeling" the company through their protests and "inciting violence" outside GEO facilities.

Dream Defenders called the claims a joke, and now the American Civil Liberties Union is also hitting back. This past Friday, the ACLU's Jacob J. Hutt called GEO's legal threat "laughable" and said the company's cease-and-desist amounted to little more than bully tactics from a gigantic corporation.

"The letter accuses Dream Defenders of making 'knowingly false statements' which 'likely give rise to... claims for defamation and tortious interference with GEO’s contracts,'" writes Hutt, a fellow with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. "Not content with making baseless defamation claims, GEO goes on to accuse Dream Defenders of 'inciting a dangerous disruption' and 'encouraging threatening and violent behavior.' Neither of these allegations passes the laugh test."

GEO holds more than $400 million in contracts with ICE, runs at least one migrant facility in Texas that houses children, has been accused in court of forcing immigrants to work for food, and regularly dumps wads of cash into state and federal political races. Dream Defenders labeled GEO a "dream killer" and launched a series of targeted protests outside GEO facilities beginning August 7. In response to the "Dream Killer" campaign, GEO's letter claimed that accusing the company of "caging" children or "separating" families was libelous.

Dream Defenders responded last Monday with a point-by-point rebuttal, noting GEO lists "steel cages" among its pieces of equipment online. Now the ACLU also says GEO's complaints are hogwash. The civil rights organization notes that Dream Defenders' criticisms are "protected statements on matters of public concern" and are " far from verifiably false statements, which GEO would need to show in a defamation lawsuit." The ACLU adds:

In fact, Dream Defenders’ statements are well founded. The response letter highlights factual support for each of the allegations cited in GEO’s letter, from GEO’s own promotional materials referencing their sale of “steel cages” to news reports of GEO’s lucrative involvement in family separation.

Against the weight of lawsuits, news reports, and government investigations into the company’s practices, GEO’s contention that Dream Defenders spread information they knew to be false falls flat. The activists’ allegations are exactly the kind of political speech that is protected against government censorship and defamation civil lawsuits.

By the same token, calling on allies to “creatively disrupt” GEO’s “business-as-usual” is quintessential political speech, not incitement. GEO argues that Dream Defenders’ call for protest amounts to “encouragement” of unlawful behavior. But there are countless lawful ways for activists to heed Dream Defenders call for protest, and GEO’s letter fails to identify a single statement by Dream Defenders that instructs activists to break the law. In any case, even speech encouraging unlawful action is protected by the First Amendment, as we recently argued to a federal appeals court. Although GEO considers Dream Defenders’ rhetoric “reckless” and “incendiary,” a call for protest is not a parliamentary motion, and activists are not required to observe Robert’s Rules of Order. The First Amendment protects “reckless” and “incendiary” rhetoric, so long as it doesn’t intentionally and directly incite immediate violence. 

The ACLU goes on to explain that threats from major corporations such as GEO tend to have a chilling effect on political speech: Even if a nonprofit knows its complaints are factually true, it can still be costly to defend true statements in court from bogus legal threats.

Many groups wind up "self-censoring" true information to avoid lawsuits, the group warns.

"Resources that should be spent on advocacy would be diverted to legal costs, which suits the corporate plaintiff just fine," the ACLU writes. "That’s why it’s important to respond loudly and clearly to groundless threats like the one GEO made in response to a week of bad press. To quote the Dream Defenders, 'Nah.'"

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