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Dennis Hiebert, Geez magazine

Use the law, don’t be afraid of it

Contributed by

In Sum

Talk to more than one lawyer and pick the one whose advice you want to follow.

The law is a funny thing. Sometimes the Yes Men ask lawyers before we do anything particularly dangerous. We get one of two answers: “Don’t do it! It’s illegal. You’ll get sued!” or “Awesome! It’s probably legal, and besides, you’re righteous in the court of public opinion.” The “awesomes,” are almost always right for two reasons: 1) In the U.S. at least, the law does in fact protect freedom of speech to a very high degree (not always a good thing: corporate lobbying is also considered free speech), and 2) corporations don’t sue you because they know how it can blow back on them and they want to avoid having yet more egg on their big, blank, mechanical faces. In the Yes Men’s twelve years of activism, we’ve only been sued once.

Corporations won’t sue you, but they may send you a cease-and-desist letter. Rather than a cause to worry, this can be a great boon. C&D letters are letters from lawyers that threaten you with a lawsuit, usually in highfalutin’ legal language. They carry absolutely no legal weight and can be ignored — though of course you then take the risk that the lawyers will follow through. Almost always, however, the C&D letter, while not exactly a bluff, is a formality. For example, companies have trademarks, and in order to keep them they have to demonstrate that they’re making efforts to defend them — and a C&D letter qualifies as evidence of such an effort.

If you receive a C&D letter, it’s a tremendous opportunity to stretch out the story and get an additional wave of news coverage for your action. First thing we do when we receive a C&D letter is reach out to a lawyer we trust and see what she thinks — though we’re always prepared to ignore her advice. Then, we consider whether there’s anything funny we can do with the letter. For example, after we put up the coalcares.org site, we received a C&D letter from Peabody Energy, America’s largest coal producer. Instead of taking down the site, we responded in a way that enlarged the issue. It’s not just Peabody that’s giving kids asthma, we noted, but all American coal companies. So we removed Peabody’s name from the site and added the names of all the other coal companies. We subsequently received three more C&D letters, which we also ignored.

Lawyers are not to be feared, though the same can’t always be said for the law. If you are, for example, pretending to be Exxon-Mobil at a petroleum conference, there is no need to break character when the conference’s private security lock you in a small room and cross-examine you (trust us on this one). But when the real police arrive, you may as well tell them honestly what you are up to. They may even turn out to be on your side, especially if you seem reasonable in contrast to the exasperated conference organizer or private security goon. In general, you should avoid lying to the police unless you have a really really good reason.

Remember: Don’t be afraid of suits, law- or otherwise.

HOW THE OPPOSITE IS EQUALLY TRUE: Sometimes corporations do sue activists, especially those with limited resources to defend themselves. That’s called a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) suit. However, usually, all you really need to do to avoid any such corporate shenanigans is be ready to widely publicize the brouhaha, and hurl the aforementioned egg smack dab onto the corporate forehead.

Andy Bichlbaum (AKA Jacques Servin) got his start as an activist when, as a computer programmer, he inserted a swarm of kissing boys in a shoot-'em-up video game just before it shipped to store shelves, and found himself fired, famous, and hugely amused. Now, Andy helps run the Yes Lab for Creative Activism as part of his job as professor of subversion at New York University. Bichlbaum once flew down the Nile in a two-seater airplane, bringing a live goat to a remote Sudanese village as a hostess gift for a homecoming party. (The party was fun and the goat was insanely delicious.)

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