Arkansas TV stations pull ad criticizing Exxon after legal threats

A satirical ad criticizing Exxon Mobil that was set to air this week on Arkansas TV stations was pulled at the last minute after the company threatened legal action.

The Irving, Texas-based oil giant is in the spotlight for its March 29 Pegagus oil pipeline break in Mayflower, Ark., which spilled an estimated 300,000 gallons of Canadian tar sands bitumen, a highly impure form of petroleum, in a residential community. Of the 22 families evacuated as a result of the spill, four are being allowed to return to their homes today.

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The 30-second, crowd-funded ad, titled "Exxon Hates Your Children," is part of a campaign organized by three groups targeting the $10 billion per year U.S. taxpayers spend to subsidize Exxon and other fossil-fuel industry giants. Oil Change International, The Other 98%, and Environmental Action accuse the company of acting like a bully.

"Instead of engaging their critics appropriately, Exxon uses its billions to hire high-priced lawyers to make scary-sounding but unsupported legal claims to suppress criticism," said David Turnbull of Oil Change International. "It's a window into how they have preserved billions in taxpayer handouts for their industry for so many years."

The ad was supposed to air this week on local Arkansas affiliates of ABC, NBC, and Fox News until Exxon took action.

This isn't the first time the company has squelched the ad. After the groups bought air time for the spot to run on the Houston Fox News affiliate during the State of the Union news coverage in February, Exxon issued a cease-and-desist demand to cable provider Comcast that resulted in the ad being dropped.

In its latest cease-and-desist memo, Exxon says the ad "is based entirely on factual inaccuracy, nonsensical and illogical statements, and is defamatory toward each of ExxonMobil's 90,000 global employees and their families."

A response to the managers of the stations that canceled the ad from attorney Corynne McSherry with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group representing the groups behind the spot, notes that the campaign "makes an obviously over-the-top assertion about the company's views about children, in order to call attention to the many serious concerns about the company's policies."

McSherry continues:

What ExxonMobil should not do -- and what media outlets must not help them do -- is use ill-defined and improper legal threats to limit my client's ability to spread its political message. We urge you to decline ExxonMobil's invitation to join its campaign of suppression. let the advertisement run -- and if ExxonMobil chooses to create its own ad, run that too.

The move by Exxon comes as the company is under fire for attempting to limit news coverage of the Arkansas spill. Last week, InsideClimate news reported that journalist Lisa Song was threatened with arrest for criminal trespass after she entered the cleanup command center.

In addition, a group of reporters that went to the site last week with Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel were ordered to leave by sheriff's deputies who said Exxon didn't want them there, as Mother Jones reported.

Residents of the community affected by the spill have reported experiencing health problems including breathing difficulties, burning eyes, sore throats, headaches and stomachaches -- all symptoms related to hydrocarbon exposure.

Oil has from the spill has reportedly reached a nearby wetland via storm drains. The affected neighborhood sits along Lake Conway, a popular fishing site, and wildlife have been hurt by the spill.

Here's the ad at the center of the controversy: