The First Amendment has been dragged into New York's intense debate over fracking.
The small town of Sanford, N.Y., was sued Tuesday by two leading environmental groups following a resolution passed by city officials last year that prohibited residents from talking about fracking at town council meetings.
That rule and its free speech implications prompted the lawsuit from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, which argue that town leaders want to see fracking in upstate New York and are attempting to muzzle those who disagree.
Both groups have been outspoken in their opposition to fracking, the controversial oil and natural gas extraction method that has been used successfully in neighboring Pennsylvania and other states.
"If people are silenced by their own elected representatives, how can they trust them to act in their best interests?" said Kate Sinding, an attorney with the NRDC. "The Sanford Town Board has taken away residents' right to speak up on one of the most controversial and daunting issues facing them today in the very forum designed to give them that opportunity. This is particularly troubling given the board's history of unwavering support for fracking."
Herbert Kline, an attorney representing Sanford, didn't comment specifically on the lawsuit but said town board meetings had turned into forums for the fracking debate before the resolution was passed in September 2012.
"People who were against fracking had, in the minds of the town board, monopolized discussion in the public participation portion of prior meetings to the extent that very little other business could be accomplished," he told The Associated Press.
Sanford, a town of 2,400 in Broome County, isn't far from the Pennsylvania border and sits atop the Marcellus Shale, one of the largest known natural-gas deposits in the world. The area likely would be first in line for fracking if the process gets the green light.
But New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo continues to put off a decision on whether to allow it.
Joseph Martens, Mr. Cuomo's commissioner of environmental conservation, issued a statement Tuesday announcing that his agency will conduct additional research into the potential health effects of fracking, further delaying the release of regulations that would govern the practice if it is eventually approved.
It's the latest in a series of delays as pressure from both sides of the debate mounts on the Cuomo administration.
Recent polls have shown support for fracking throughout upstate New York, which, by Mr. Cuomo's own admission, continues to struggle economically and needs a boost of the sort fracking almost surely would provide.
Environmental groups and other critics, however, have launched an unprecedented public relations campaign to keep fracking out of New York. They have been joined by the celebrity-laden organization "Artists Against Fracking," founded by Yoko Ono.
The group has organized numerous protests throughout the state, and earlier this year hand-delivered to Mr. Cuomo's office thousands of written comments from New Yorkers opposed to fracking.
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