Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed baseless Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) claims brought by Resolute Forest Products attacking the free speech of environmental defenders at different Greenpeace entities, Stand.Earth, and five individual defendants. The court also decided to dismiss the vast majority of defamation claims. The defamation claims not dismissed are incredibly narrow. The defendants will continue to fight these claims vigorously and believe they will prevail as they rely on the best available science. Protect the Protest, a task force of over 20 organizations working to protect free speech, applauds this decision, which signals an important win for civil society in the fight against frivolous lawsuits and an affirmation of the defendants’ rights as public watchdogs to hold the powerful to account.
Resolute Forest Products initially filed its $300 million lawsuit claiming that criticism of and advocacy against its unsustainable logging practices in the Canadian Boreal Forest undertaken by several Greenpeace entities, Stand.Earth, and others amounted to racketeering – charges traditionally levied against ‘mobsters’ and criminal syndicates. This gross mischaracterization of the advocates’ work attempts to criminalize standard advocacy activities. Its main purpose, however, rested not on the outcome but on the litigation process – which the company hoped would drain time and resources and intimidate defendants into silence.
“The judge’s decision to throw out the abusive racketeering charges is a positive development and a win for advocacy,” said Greenpeace USA Counsel Tom Wetterer. “From day one, it was clear Resolute intended to bully legitimate advocacy organizations and forest defenders by abusing laws designed to curtail the mafia. The judge made it clear this would not be tolerated. If the logging giant continues to pursue its desperate strategy to silence civil society by appealing this decision in the U.S. or continuing its legal attack in Canada, we are confident such tactics will meet the same dead end […] Today’s landmark decision should be a lesson for other corporate bullies attempting the same underhanded legal tactics, like Energy Transfer, that they will not succeed in attempts to criminalize free speech. We will continue to speak truth to power.” (Read Defendants Greenpeace USA’s press release here and Stand.Earth press release here.)
While the court has recognized the groundlessness of Resolute’s racketeering claims, other corporations, like Energy Transfer, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, are employing the same tactics to try to silence and intimidate critics (Energy Transfer is formerly known as Energy Transfer Partners (ETP)). The same Greenpeace entities and other individuals face a $900 million SLAPP filed by Energy Transfer in the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests.
“The right to free speech is one of the core pillars of our democracy, and today a federal court upheld that right. This decision comes during a vital time in America’s history — a time when it has never been more important for citizens to loudly advocate against companies and governments that sacrifice the public good for private gain,” said Todd Paglia, Executive Director of Stand.earth.
While today’s decision on the Resolute case is a step in the right direction, activists must remain vigilant as some corporations continue to try to use strategic lawsuits against public participation, also known as SLAPPs, to silence dissent. Katie Redford, Co-founder and Director of EarthRights International, added, “…these legal bullying tactics will not prevail. Now, more than ever, we are committed to defending the free speech rights of individuals and organizations like Greenpeace, and so many others, that our democracy and our planet depend upon.”
Resolute initially filed the first version of its lawsuit in Georgia in May 2016, which was then moved to California and was dismissed in October 2017, with the judge finding that part of the challenged activity constituted First Amendment protected speech. Resolute then amended its case and refiled the lawsuit.