A star First Amendment lawyer best known for defending Mary Trump, Ashley Judd, and Jim Acosta has won a prestigious free speech award, but climate advocates are questioning whether he deserves it.
To them, Ted Boutrous is better known as a lead attorney for Chevron, a role in which he draws on his First Amendment background to argue that oil companies shouldn’t face legal consequences for deceiving the public about whether climate change is real.
Climate advocates are incredulous that Boutrous is on Tuesday night getting a “Freedom of the Press Award,” an honor given out by Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, a journalist advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Other winners this year include New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer, who has written at length about corporate deception on climate change.
“The notion of Ted Boutrous up on stage with Jane Mayer is just a little bit too much to stomach,” Richard Wiles, executive director of the advocacy and research group the Center for Climate Integrity, told VICE News. “Really? Those are equal defenders of free speech in America?”
“I have been representing journalists and news organizations and defending freedom of the press my entire career,” Boutrous told the outlet Climate Docket in an email when he was initially announced as a winner. “Chevron, like my other clients, strongly supports the critically important work done by journalists and news organizations. Any suggestion to the contrary is inaccurate and misleading.”
Boutrous, Jane Mayer, and the Reporters Committee did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
One of the “Legacy Champion” sponsors of this year’s awards ceremony is Chevron, meaning the oil and gas company donated at least $50,000 to the Reporters Committee.
“They want to appear as good guys in the public realm,” Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown University who studies the climate denial campaigns of oil companies, told VICE News.
“The better your reputation, the lower the likelihood you’re going to get regulated.”
The company wrote in an email to VICE News that “Chevron supports a number of organizations that seek to advance initiatives related to human rights around the world.”
Boutrous, who has advisory roles at the International Women’s Media Foundation and ProPublica, is receiving this award in part for his work fighting to restore the White House press credentials of journalists Acosta and Brian Karem, which were suspended under President Donald Trump.
“It’s great to find a lawyer like Ted Boutrous who understands the importance of the First Amendment every bit as much as a journalist does,” Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, explains in a video announcing this week’s award.
The Reporters Committee doesn’t mention that Boutrous is also leading Chevron’s legal defense in lawsuits accusing the California oil giant of spreading misinformation about climate change. These lawsuits, which have been filed on behalf of San Francisco, Oakland, Honolulu, and more than a dozen other cities and jurisdictions across the U.S., allege that Big Oil intentionally deceived the public to protect its profits from climate change regulations.
The lawsuits cite internal documents such as a 1998 “Action Plan” produced by Chevron, Exxon, the American Petroleum Institute, and others that states, “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’”
The companies for decades ran advertisements and produced studies saying climate science was uncertain, the lawsuits allege, even though internally oil and gas producers have known about the dangers of global temperature rise since at least the 1960s.
With Boutrous as its lead attorney, Chevron has argued that it is legally free to say whatever it wants in public and that “the ‘wrongful’ conduct alleged is constitutionally protected speech immunized by the First Amendment.” Last month, Boutrous made a similar argument in a Hawaiian court.
But “there’s no First Amendment right for committing fraud,” Wiles said.
On its website, the Reporters Committee states, “Democracy requires the free flow of information to the public, and never before has the public’s ability to obtain accurate, credible information about local and national affairs been so threatened.”
It’s hard to see how that commitment to truth-telling aligns with presenting a major award to one of Big Oil’s biggest legal defenders, argues Aaron Regunberg of the advocacy group Law Students for Climate Accountability, which is running a campaign against Boutrous’ firm Gibson Dunn.
“Ignoring the active deception and fraud perpetrated against the American people by oil companies seems like it’s pretty against the [Reporters Committee’s] mission,” he told VICE News.
Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.