The Other Free Speech Debate

A logging company sued Greenpeace under legislation targeted by the mafia.

(Courtesy Photo)

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.

Resolute Forest Products filed the suit in May 2016, claiming Greenpeace violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which allows plaintiffs to sue for three times the damages they suffered. Originally created to take down organized crime, in this case the law was used to argue that Greenpeace committed global fraud by raising funds based on false and misleading claims.

The suit, pointing to losses from Greenpeace’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 joined Greenpeace as amici — or parties that give information that may be used in court — Handman says. She argues that just 26 of 218 alleged defamatory statements were made by the defendants, only one of which was made within the one-year statute of limitations in Georgia.

Much of the focus at a packed hearing in San Francisco’s federal court last week was on Canada’s boreal forest, for which Resolute says the groups spread misinformation about the harm inflicted by its logging. But Handman argues that Resolute planting more than 1 billion trees to offset deforestation doesn’t make Greenpeace’s claims of harm done to endangered caribou and indigenous people untrue.

Resolute lawyer Michael J. Bowe — who’s from the same law firm started by Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz — says Resolute is simply trying to recover reputational harm from 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 told SF Weekly before the judge’s decision. “I think the judge made very clear he takes the case seriously and was on top of the relevant issues.”

U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar asked how the equation could be changed if Resolute claimed Greenpeace knowingly spread GPS coordinates in 2012 that made Resolute appear to be logging 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 says. “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. The groups raised alarms over the precedent these suits could set to deter nonprofits from speaking up against wealthy companies.

Ultimately, Tigar threw out the case and noted that Greenpeace and Stand engaged in protected free speech. He also sided with the nonprofits in evoking the anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation statute, which paves the way for their legal fees to be covered by Resolute.

Resolute has three weeks to file an amended complaint.

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