Free Speech For People, a nonprofit legal advocacy and public education group, on June 2, 2014, filed an amicus brief before the US District Court for the District of Hawaii in the case of Syngenta Seeds v. County of Kaua‘i, arguing that agribusiness corporations do not have a constitutional right, under the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, to flout a law requiring disclosure of pesticides and genetically-engineered crops used on the island of Kaua‘i.
The Equal Justice Society co-signed the brief.
The companies are challenging a local law requiring commercial agricultural producers using more than a minimum pesticide threshold to disclose the pesticide and genetically-modified organisms that they use, and to maintain a pesticide buffer zone near any home, school, day care center, or similar facility. The companies claim that this ordinance violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, and support their theory by citing Supreme Court case law protecting gay and lesbian people, people with intellectual disabilities, and undocumented immigrant children.
Free Speech For People’s amicus brief argues that the Equal Protection Clause—which was passed after the Civil War, to protect the rights of the newly-freed slaves—does not prevent local communities from adopting agricultural regulations. Furthermore, the companies’ reference to Supreme Court precedent involving vulnerable minorities threatens to dilute the protections of the Equal Protection Clause and endanger those who need it the most. In addition to EJS, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and EarthRights International also co-signed the brief.
“Four years ago, corporations did what the Framers of the Constitution never would have imagined possible. They seized, with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, the right of free speech under the First Amendment to influence our elections,” said John Bonifaz, president of Free Speech For People. “Now the question is, when the democratic process does finally work, whether corporations can go even farther and invoke the legal protections of vulnerable minorities to trump regulations about pesticides and genetically-engineered crops.”
“Equality under the law is one of our most sacred constitutional rights,” said Eva Paterson, President of the Equal Justice Society. “Too often, courts don’t protect civil rights when it comes to school discipline, special education, and inequities in the criminal justice system. The 14th amendment was passed to provide protections to African-Americans who were free from the bondage of slavery. Lately, courts have been more interested in protecting ‘corporate rights’ than civil rights.”
“We are finally seeing the promise of equality and justice embedded in the Equal Protection Clause extended to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community”, said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “It is a cynical distortion to suggest that the individual liberty protected by the 14th Amendment applies to for-profit corporations seeking to evade environmental protections.”
“Multinational corporations can take care of themselves without any special help,” said Katie Redford, director of EarthRights International. “The people of Kaua‘i have spoken, and they want to know what pesticides and genetically-engineered crops are in their environment. Courts shouldn’t create new constitutional rights for corporations to flout environmental laws.”
“The Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution is about equality and dignity for all people,” said Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech For People. “The Equal Protection Clause is why we don’t have legal segregation anymore, and why bans on same-sex marriage are crumbling. Multinational corporations insult the civil rights movement when they invoke equal protection to challenge a law about agricultural business practices.”
Counsel on the amicus brief were Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech For People, and Carl Varady, a Honolulu civil rights lawyer.
Bonifaz, president of Free Speech For People, is a founding member of the Equal Justice Society board of directors.