A federal judge on the United States District Court for Northern California in San Francisco dismissed a logging company’s lawsuit against Greenpeace and a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit called Stand, who it accused of libel and racketeering. The decision came in October after Resolute Forest Products, a Canadian paper and pulp company, said the groups which had described the company as a “forest destroyer,” claimed the groups had engaged in a “disinformation campaign,” starting in 2012, about the companys logging in the boreal forest of northern and western Canada to boost their own fundraising.
Libel and Racketeering Claims
In their campaign, Greenpeace claimed Resolute, one of the largest producers of newsprint in North America, had destroyed Canada’s Boreal forest and woodland caribou habitat. In return, Resolute named Greenpeace International, Greenpeace USA, Greenpeace Fund Inc., advocacy group STAND, and others in the lawsuit. The company’s lawsuit claimed Greenpeace has published “whopping lies … misrepresenting Resolutes harvesting as a major climate change risk. The suit against Greenpeace was unusual because it made use of the 1970 federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO.
The company said Greenpeace and the other groups in involved in the campaign against it were colluding to harm its business and had cost the company more than $100 million in lost business. Resolute’s suit alleged defamation, malicious falsehood and intentional interference with economic relations and sought damages of $5 million as well as punitive damages of $2 million, legal costs, and the amount of lost business. To back its claims, Resolute pointed out a Canadian court had forced Greenpeace to retract its initial claim its logging had violated the terms of an environmental agreement, and had falsely accused Resolute of endangering caribou in an area where the company did little logging.
Hyperbole Not Libel
In tossing Resolute’s lawsuit, Tigar said Resolute, which describes itself as the world’s largest producer of newsprint, is a “public figure” and under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, a “public figure” who is suing for libel must prove not only the person being sued statements were false and damaging, but also they were knowingly or recklessly false. Tigar said Resolute had failed to offer evidence of lies or reckless falsehoods by the environmental groups.
According to Tigar when Greenpeace called the company “forest destroyer” it was ot a literal accusation but commonplace hyperbole, and other contested statements made by the environmentalists are based on their own scientific research, and as such “The academy, and not the courthouse, is the appropriate place to resolve scientific disagreements,” wrote Tigar.
Joshua Galperin, who runs the Environmental Protection Clinic at Yale Law School, told Inside Climate News the case could have changed the tenor of the debate between environmental activist groups and businesses.
“Now wouldn’t be a bad time for certain industries to follow Resolute’s lead and say, ‘let’s try to change the conversation. Let’s see if we can get the Trump administration to intervene in these lawsuits, to get behind us, to bring perhaps even criminal RICO charges against groups like Greenpeace,'” said Galperin.
Is the Dam Breaking?
In a letter appearing in The Wall Street Journal, Brandon Phillips, senior director of communications and advocacy for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) writes he hopes other companies and groups follow Resolute’s example.
“Bravo to Resolute Forest Products and here’s hoping the discovery process in the litigation shines a light on the misconduct that environmental journalists have apparently ignored for far too long,” wrote Phillips.
In August 2017, Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline followed Resolute’s lead and filed a RICO suit against Greenpeace, Banktrack and Earth First!. As in Resolute’s case, Energy Transfer Partners’ complaint says Greenpeace and the other named groups are part of a broad conspiracy against a major company, with the advocacy groups running an illegal “enterprise” to further their own interests while damaging the company. Energy Transfer Partners’ suit goes further than Resolute’s alleging Greenpeace supports for eco-terrorism, a violation of the Patriot Act.
H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow and managing editor for The Heartland Institute’s Environment & Climate News, told Inside Climate News previously companies have been too quick to cave to the demands of environmentalists, but if a company ever prevails in RICO suit against false claims by environmentalists, this could change.
“The Resolute case is one small thread, but you can take a thread and unravel a whole sweater,” Burnett told Inside Climate News.
Jonathan Adler, a law professor Case Western Reserve University of Law, Adler told Inside Climate News if more companies bring such suits when harassed by environmental groups, the groups may have to reconsider their tactics.
“There is a view in the free market community that corporations don’t fight back enough and are too quick to write the terms of their own surrender,” Adler said. “If weapons are lying around, someone’s going to pick them up.”
In a Washington Post blog discussing Resolute’s lawsuit, Adler notes Greenpeace has advocated using RICO to go after climate scientists skeptical of claims humans are causing dangerous anthropogenic climate change.
“I confess that I’m no big fan of RICO, particularly when used to fight what is ultimately a political battle, but if the statute may be deployed against climate skeptics (as Greenpeace has urged), I see no reason why it can’t be used against environmentalist groups as well …,” Adler wrote. “Perhaps now that it is a RICO defendant and faces the prospect of expansive discovery in addition to a substantial financial judgment, Greenpeace might consider that it’s better to wage policy fights in the policy arena.”
Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.