- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - More than 40 years after it was first recorded, a strip-mining protest song still rankles one of the nation’s largest coal mining companies.

Peabody Energy Corp., which operates major mines in Wyoming, asked a federal judge in Casper to strike lyrics of singer-songwriter John Prine’s 1971 song “Paradise” from a federal lawsuit filed by a pair of environmental activists who claim they were jailed for demonstrating at a company shareholders meeting.

The couple’s lawsuit opens by quoting lyrics of Prine’s song, including this verse:

“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County

“Down by the green river where Paradise lay?

“Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking

“Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”

The activists, Thomas Asprey and Leslie Glustrom, both of Boulder, Colorado, have sued Peabody as well as the Northern Wyoming Community College District and a college district police officer.

Asprey and Glustrom claim in the lawsuit filed this spring that Peabody had moved its 2013 shareholders’ meeting to the campus of Gillette College because of protests by mine workers at the company headquarters in St. Louis.

Members of the United Mine Workers of America were staging protests in St. Louis in 2013 over bankruptcy proceedings involving Patriot Coal.

Peabody had spun off Patriot Coal in 2007 and Patriot declared bankruptcy in 2012. Before Patriot emerged from bankruptcy in late 2013, the bankruptcy proceeding prompted complaints from miners that it was trying to shed pension and retiree health benefits owed to some miners who had worked for Peabody.

In their lawsuit, Asprey and Glustrom say police at Gillette College informed them they could only display a banner proclaiming “Peabody Abandons Miners” in a fenced area far from the college building where the shareholders’ meeting took place. The two claimed they were arrested by campus police after unfurling the banner in front of the building to allow some miners to take a photo.

The lawsuit claims that campus police were taking orders from Peabody to quash protests. The college filed a response to the lawsuit Monday denying the claims.

Prine’s song, which has since been re-recorded by such country greats as Johnny Cash, apparently has been a thorn in the company’s side since he first released it in his 1971 debut album.

People Magazine reported in the 1970s that the company put out a statement titled “Facts versus Prine,” that said in part, “we probably helped supply the energy to make that recording that falsely names us as ‘hauling away’ Paradise, Kentucky.”

Attempts to reach Prine for comment through his record label were not immediately successful on Monday.

Lawyers for Peabody filed a 15-page brief with U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl in Casper last week urging him to strike the lyrics and other aspects of Asprey and Glustrom’s complaint the company claims are “irrelevant, immaterial, impertinent and/or inflammatory.”

The company stated the plaintiffs are “attempting to shame Peabody and attack the energy industry by citing to song lyrics that tarnish Peabody’s name … These allegations rise to the level of absurdity, as they have no bearing whatsoever on the facts in this case, and, accordingly, should be stricken.”

Vic Svec, spokesman for Peabody Energy, said Monday, “Our filing reflects our belief that the case has no merit and the plaintiffs are using the legal system to push an agenda.”

Darold Killmer, a Denver lawyer representing Asprey and Glustrom, said it’s unusual for defendants in a civil case to ask a judge to strike portions of a civil complaint.

“Anytime anybody criticizes Peabody, they get angry and they retaliate, and that’s what happened here,” Killmer said.

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