UPDATE, Monday, Oct. 16 – The court dismissed the case, leaving Resolute three weeks to file an amended complaint. The judge noted that the defendants engaged in protected free speech and granted them an anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation motion to strike the first complaint.
As backers of far-right speakers on campuses express free speech outrage, activists facing legal fallout from the institutions they challenge are asking for a signal boost.
Greenpeace is one of multiple nonprofits targeted under an anti-racketeering law in recent years, most recently in a case by a logging company that could cost them $300 million in Canadian currency. The group’s legal counsel argued for the suit to be dismissed Tuesday, at a packed hearing in San Francisco’s federal court.
Resolute Forest Products filed the suit in May 2016, claiming Greenpeace is violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which allows plaintiffs to sue for three times the damages. Originally passed to take down organized crime, the law is now being used to argue that Greenpeace is a global fraud by raising funds based on false and misleading claims.
The suit, pointing to losses from Greenpeace and Stand’s campaign branding Resolute as a destroyer of forests was filed in Augusta, Ga. — but that court kicked it to California earlier this year.
“This is a classic case of a big company trying to silence its critics for their opinions on matters of public concern,” Greenpeace attorney Laura Handman says in a statement. Should Resolute win damages, she adds, it “would have a chilling, indeed freezing, effect on speech.”
Nine environmental groups and 12 media groups have joined Greenpeace as amici — or parties that give importation that may be used in court — Handman says. She argued that just 26 of 218 alleged defamatory statements were made by the defendants, only one of which made within the one-year statute of limitations in Georgia.
Much of the focus on Tuesday was on Canada’s Boreal Forest, for which Resolute says the groups spread misinformation about the harm inflicted by its logging. That Resolute planted more than 1 billion trees to offset deforestation doesn’t make Greenpeace’s claims of harm done to endangered caribou and indigenous people untrue, Handman argued.
Resolute lawyer Michael J. Bowe — who’s notably from the same law firm started by Marc Kasowitz, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer — says Resolute is just trying to recover its reputation harmed by Greenpeace’s campaign to gather emotion-driven donations.
“Nobody has a First Amendment right to publish recklessly or intentionally false claims, which is what Greenpeace did here to Resolute,” Bowe tells SF Weekly. “I think the judge made very clear he takes the case seriously and was on top of the relevant issues.”
Judge Jon S. Tigar, federal judge for the Northern District of California, asked how the equation could be changed if Resolute claimed Greenpeace knowingly spread GPS coordinates in 2012 that made Resolute logging appear where it was not. Handman said her client corrected the mistake once it was brought to their attention.
“They don’t like that Stand and Greenpeace criticized them but they offered nothing new,” Stand’s Executive Director Todd Paglia tells SF Weekly. “There’s nothing in there where they could possibly give information that shows that any of us intended to put out [false] information.”
Greenpeace is also under legal pressure by Energy Transfer Partners, which filed a lawsuit earlier this year alleging the conservationists incited vandalism to raise money and block the Dakota Access Pipeline, Bloomberg reported. The groups are raising alarms over the precedent this could set to deter nonprofits from speaking up against wealthy companies.
The judge has indicated that he will make a decision soon, Paglia says.