In June 1997 environmental activists climbed old heritage trees in downtown Eugene in an attempt to stop them from being cut down for a parking garage.
Lauren Regan, the executive director and staff attorney of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, graduated from the University of Oregon in environmental law in April 1997. It was just over a month later that what is now referred to as the “June 1st pepper spray massacre” happened in downtown Eugene.
“Eugene Police Department showed up and they dumped so much pepper spray on these activists that they were literally hanging from the branches of trees with no safety nets or anything,” Regan says, recounting the incident.
At 3 am that June 1 morning, activists called Regan and asked her to be the lawyer on the scene, to make sure everything went OK in case people were were extracted from the trees.
“No one ever thought that it was going to end up with the level of police brutality and chemical weapon use,” Regan tells Eugene Weekly. “I watched all of these people, many of whom were Earth First! journalists, just getting brutalized and extracted from the tree and arrested and hauled off to jail. And those cases ended up being my first criminal defense cases.” Amnesty International condemned EPD’s use of pepper spray in the incident.
Josh Laughlin, then a 22-year-old University of Oregon undergrad student and Earth First! Journal editor, and now executive director of environmental nonprofit Cascadia Wildlands, was one of the dozen or so people in the trees. He was also active in the efforts to stop old-growth logging on public forest lands that led to arrests of many of Regan’s environmental activist friends.
He says Regan helped represent him and two other defendants for the charges they faced and that she also assisted them in bringing a case against Eugene for the excessive force used. The three protesters received a settlement of $30,000.
“It was actually really empowering to work with Lauren, somebody who had supported our values and our vision for protecting these old forests,” Laughlin says. “To be able to work with Lauren, both on the criminal defense and the proactive civil rights violations that we brought against the city of Eugene, was eye opening.”
After these events, Regan realized that while there were many public interest environmental lawyers, few focused on how to support the movement through the legal system.
“I started trying to figure out a way to have the backs of activists that were engaged in the movement,” Regan says. From that the Civil Liberties Defense Center was born in 2003.
The mission of the CLDC is to support movements that “dismantle the political and economic structures at the root of social inequality and environmental destruction.” The organization provides litigation as well as education and legal resources to support environmental advocates and activists in and out of court.
The center has worked on cases across the country. In 2016 the CLDC filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging multiple law enforcement agencies in North Dakota for assaulting and violating peaceful protesters at Standing Rock.
That same year, the CLDC provided free legal representation to the Valve Turners, five climate activists who closed the valves on four pipelines carrying tar sands oil into the U.S. from Canada, shutting off 15 percent of U.S. crude oil imports for almost a day. The Valve Turners were charged with multiple felonies.
The CLDC kept all but one activist out of jail and prevented them from having to pay large restitution amounts to the pipeline company. Regan said at the time that “I think the Valve Turner cases were an excellent example of activists and lawyers working together to use the legal system and courtrooms to advance climate advocacy, outreach and education in rural areas where fossil fuel industries prevail and activists rarely set foot.”
Back in Eugene, the center has helped countless organizations and activists. In 2011 during the Occupy Eugene movement, Regan represented current Eugene City Councilor Emily Semple when Semple was arrested for protesting for free speech multiple times. Regan got Semple’s cases dismissed, and Semple tells EW that she was impressed with the advice and reassurance Regan gave.
“I know that she works on so many, both controversial and important, issues,” Semple says. “I feel that she’s somebody who really does make a difference in our world.”
More recently, the CLDC represented activists involved in the Black Unity-led protest in Springfield in July 2020. The Springfield Police Department arrested and physically assaulted protesters, and the CLDC filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. Regan writes in a May 2022 guest viewpoint on the case that “Nine activists were charged with misdemeanors and one faced felonies. Only one was convicted — the other cases were dismissed.”
Creating resources and providing legal education is also a big priority of the center. Before COVID-19, the CLDC offered in-person “know your rights” training. Sarah Alvarez, a staff attorney for the center, says that during the pandemic, the center held biweekly webinar sessions to continue to cover basic rights information for activists, immigrants and unhoused people, as well as other topics such as the workings of police misconduct litigation, or how to do digital security on cell phones.
“We have a really huge, huge library online that is totally free and accessible to anyone who wants to watch,” Alvarez adds.