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Peabody Coal Protest

Fern MacDougal hangs a banner from the rafters above the entrance to Gillette College while protesting a Peabody Energy shareholders meeting on April 29, 2013, in Gillette. MacDougal and two other protesters, Thomas Asprey and Leslie Glustrom, were arrested for trespassing. Asprey and Glustrom filed a federal lawsuit against Peabody, the Northern Wyoming Community College District and a college police officer for violating their constitutional rights. The lawsuit was settled this week. 

A Wyoming college and a police lieutenant settled a 2015 lawsuit Thursday, capping an extensive legal battle over allegations that authorities and an energy company violated two Colorado residents’ constitutional rights when they were arrested while protesting a Peabody Energy Corporation shareholder meeting in Gillette.

The lawsuit stems from a 2013 protest on the campus of Gillette College, where the shareholder meeting was held.

In the complaint, Boulder residents Thomas Asprey and Leslie Glustrom stated Peabody held the meeting in Gillette because of miners’ protests at the company’s St. Louis headquarters. The college allowed the company to order police to suppress protests, the lawsuit alleged.

Asprey and Glustrom said college police told them they would have to go to a fenced area far from the meeting in order to show a banner. When they displayed the banner near the meeting — emblazoned “Peabody Abandons Miners” — they were arrested, according to the complaint.

Tuesday, Colorado civil rights lawyer Darold Killmer, who represented the Coloradans in the lawsuit, said the settlement totaled almost $400,000. Peabody paid $290,000 to the two protesters as part of a settlement agreed upon this spring. The Northern Wyoming Community College District and campus police agreed Thursday to pay another $80,000.

Although the energy corporation had initially agreed to pay $200,000 each to the two protesters, the settlement took a “haircut” as the result of Peabody bankruptcy proceedings, Killmer said.

A Peabody Energy spokeswoman said in an email that the company decided to settle the suit for pragmatic reasons.

"Peabody’s conduct in the matters regarding this case was appropriate and we are confident we would have prevailed had we taken the case to its completion," the email stated. "It wasn’t practical for us to expend additional resources to defend our position and allowing these claims for the given amounts resulted in no incremental cost to the estate."

Janell Oberlander, vice president of the community college district, said she could not comment on the settlement, citing unfinished details of the deal.

The college police chief did not immediately respond on Tuesday afternoon to a request for comment.

In addition to the monetary obligations, campus police have agreed to provide additional First and Fourth Amendment training, Killmer said.

“I’m really proud of the non-monetary parts of the settlement,” Killmer said. His clients will donate the $80,000 from police and the school to local causes, although Killmer said he was not sure exactly what form the donation would take.

Although the settlement specifies that neither Peabody, police nor the community college district admits fault, which rarely happens in settlements, Killmer said the settlement “speaks for itself.”

“The settlement emphasizes the importance and the value of free speech,” he said.

The lawsuit drew national attention years ago, when Peabody asked the court to strike lyrics from John Prine’s “Paradise” that Killmer had included in legal filings. The 1971 song is critical of Peabody’s mining activities in Kentucky. A magistrate ruled against Peabody on that matter in September 2015.

Killmer said after the case received national attention, a representative for Prine thanked him for defending the lyrics and invited him to a Prine concert, which he attended.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a response from Peabody Energy. 

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Crime and Courts Reporter

Shane Sanderson is a Star-Tribune reporter who primarily covers criminal justice. Sanderson is a proud University of Missouri graduate. Lately, he’s been reading Cormac McCarthy and cooking Italian food. He writes about his own life in his free time.

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