A lawsuit by Resolute Forest Products, a logging company, to suppress environmental activism against its forestry operations was dismissed by a federal court. It targeted Greenpeace and Stand.earth’s freedom of speech and right to dissent, alleging the organizations engaged in racketeering and defamation against the company.
Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, reacted, “Resolute Forest Products sued Greenpeace for $276 million trying to paint us as part of a criminal enterprise — simply because we spoke out to defend the Boreal forest. If it had won, Greenpeace USA would likely have been forced to close its doors.”
“The decision sets a precedent that activities conducted by the defendants to draw attention to Resolute’s unsustainable clear-cutting in the Canadian boreal forest are legitimate advocacy protected by the First Amendment. The judge’s decision sends a clear message that unfettered corporate attacks on free speech will not stand up in court,” Stand.earth declared.
Resolute filed a $7 million defamation case against Greenpeace Canada in 2013 that remains pending.
What Resolute filed is known as a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) lawsuit. They are, as PR Watch has previously documented, employed by corporations to shut people up and burden them with the cost of legal defenses.
“According to the company itself, the activities at issue in its claims include that Greenpeace: published a report stating that Resolute breached a forest protection agreement, referred to the company as a ‘forest destroyer,’ presented the company with thousands of signatures asking it to protect the forest, published reports entitled, for example, “Why Forests Are Critical For Public Health,” and publicly represented the company’s “‘harvesting as a major climate change risk,'” according to the court decision [PDF].
As the court noted, these type of statements are viewed by the Ninth Circuit as warnings to consumers of “fraudulent or deceptive business practices.” They generally “constitute a topic of widespread public interest.” The court had no trouble determining that the activities Resolute complained about involved “issues of public interest.”
Resolute’s racketeering allegations against Greenpeace involved the suggestion that Greenpeace created and disseminated false and misleading reports “for the unlawful purpose of soliciting fraudulent donations from the public at-large.” However, Resolute never identified the author of these alleged fraudulent reports nor did it identify the “misconduct” or “specific content.”
Also, it claimed the publications and activism resulted in “a number of the company’s corporate customers in Europe and the United States, such as 3M and Best Buy,” withdrawing their business. This allegedly resulted in a loss of up to $100 million.
But the court was not persuaded. “To the extent that Resolute can claim harm, determining the amount of Resolute’s damages attributable to Greenpeace’s advocacy would be very difficult, because there are numerous reasons why a customer might cease or interrupt its relationship with Resolute, as Resolute itself acknowledges.”
Resolute could present no evidence of malice on the part of Greenpeace or Stand.earth, and the court determined most of the publications and statements at issue, such as “Sending a resolute message to a forest destroyer #standforforests,” was likely protected by the First Amendment because they were matters of opinion and not stated as actual facts.
Such lawsuits are widely seen as corporate attempts to impose censorship. For example, in 1980, Rick Webb was sued for leading the efforts of environmental groups in West Viriginia against the DLM Coal Corporation.
The groups alleged DLM was polluting the land and killing off fish at its strip mine and pushed the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke DLM’s license. The corporation responded with a notorious lawsuit demanding $200,000 for “defaming” DLM.
Webb’s attorney, David Grubb, reacted, “We feel like this might be an effort to tie up the environmental movement… Tying up citizen complaints would effectively halt the environmental movement… And so far, it has already had somewhat of that effect. We’ve had to take away from other things to defend this suit. Instead of taking new actions, we’re defending old ones.”
The lawsuit made its way to a state appeals court, which was infuriated that the lower court judge had not dismissed the vindictive claims. “If it appears that the [targets’] conduct falls within the class of absolutely privileged petitioning activity, the mere pendency of the [lawsuit] will threaten [their] free exercise of their right to petition government.”
As Todd LaPaglia, who was named as one of the defendants in Resolute’s lawsuit concluded, “The judge’s decision to dismiss this case shows that CEO Richard Garneau’s big accomplishment in this quixotic lawsuit was to spend millions of dollars, alienate and lose many of its customers, become well known for attacking the cherished First Amendment, and ride Resolute’s share price into the ground—all while demonstrating that activism is vitally important to forest protection. Thank you Mr. Garneau!”
For Greenpeace’s 2017 report on Resolute’s attacks on free speech, go here.