A professor at Vermont Law School said Monday he could not see Omya’s legal basis for threatening to sue Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
A Swiss lawyer for the international mining company sent VCE a letter late last month, threatening litigation if the environmental watchdog group did not remove information from its website identifying Max Andre Schachenmann and Eric Schachenmann as Omya’s owners.
The letter from Tim Hug, a lawyer with the firm Battegay Dürr Wagner, based in Basel, Switzerland, did not dispute the accuracy of the website, but said identifying the Schachenmanns as Omya’s owners violated their privacy.
“It seems very odd,” said Jared Carter, an associate professor at VLS who specializes in constitutional law, civil rights and consumer protection. “There are defamation laws … but, typically, in any defamation claim, truth is an absolute defense.”
Carter said that while there are laws establishing some privacy protections, he was not aware of any U.S. or Vermont law against identifying the owner of a corporation. If such a law were ever passed, he said, he could not see it surviving a First Amendment challenge.
“I don’t know on what grounds they could possibly be challenging her,” he said of VCE executive director Annette Smith. “That being said, companies do send cease and desist letters very regularly, often just to see what the person will do.”
Carter said this is most common in trademark law, and he had never before heard of a company sending a cease-and-desist order to bar someone from identifying its owner.
“It’s troubling if we have companies who are trying to force the public, individual citizens, to silence over speech,” he said. “We need robust speech. The solution to our problems is not less speech, it’s more speech, more information.”
?While Smith said she removed the information out of a desire to avoid a fight, Carter said he would have advised her not to.
“I would certainly question the ethics of any attorney that sends out a cease-and-desist letter without a solid claim to do so,” he said, allowing that Switzerland might have privacy protections the U.S. doesn’t and that a Swiss lawyer might not understand the difference.
Neither Omya’s corporate headquarters in Ohio nor the Swiss law office have responded to media inquiries.
Smith said she reached out to the man she believed to be Omya’s North American CEO, Anthony Colak, with whom she felt she had a good relationship, only to be told he was no longer with the company.
Smith said she and Colak came to an understanding when she was fighting the company over plans to reopen a quarry in Danby, and he ultimately pledged to keep it closed.
“Now, he’s not North American CEO and Omya’s sending me nastygrams at Thanksgiving,” she said. “I really don’t like fighting and I don’t want to fight with a company like Omya.”
A 1991 profile of Omya in the British media described Max Schachenmann, father of the current owners, as having a penchant for secrecy, having a nickname translated as “Mr. Silence.”
“If I was advising her, I would say you don’t need to do this,” Carter said. “It’s totally bizarre.”