Who would have thought a major oil corporation would have such thin skin?
In the wake of a major pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, Exxon has launched a dirty tricks campaign to prevent Little Rock television stations from running a political ad titled, “Exxon Hates Your Children.” The ad, which can be viewed at exxonhatesyourchildren.com, makes an obviously over-the-top assertion about the company’s views about children, in order to call attention to the creators' serious concerns about the company’s policies. To try to keep it off the air, Exxon is circulating a memo to television stations claiming that the commercial is “defamatory toward each of ExxonMobil’s 80,000 employees and their families.” Exxon goes on to describe good things the company does for children and the environment.
The ads, which were paid for through crowdfunding, were scheduled to run on local ABC, NBC, and Fox stations this week, but were taken off the schedule when the stations got the memo. In February, Exxon pulled the same stunt when Comcast was set to air the ad during the president's State of the Union address.
With help from EFF, the activists behind the ad, Oil Change International, are fighting back. As we explain in our response, Exxon's humorless memo misses the point entirely. The activists are simply using parody and satire to comment on an issue of public concern. This type of political speech fits well within the protections of the First Amendment. After all, as Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in a 1944 free-speech case, "One of the prerogatives of American citizenship is the right to criticize public men and measures."
As we also explain, the right way to respond to speech you don't like is to engage in open debate, not censorship, and media outlets should be especially sensitive to that principle. Judge Learned Hand said it best seventy years ago: "[T]he First Amendment . . . presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and always will be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all."
What Exxon should not do—and what the television stations should not help them do—is use ill-defined and improper legal threats to silence legitimate political speech. The stations should let the ad run and, if Exxon chooses to create its own ad, run that too.