SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Environmental groups on Tuesday defeated the bulk of a lawsuit claiming they conspired to smear a logging company with false statements, but Greenpeace must still face defamation claims for two statements it published.
“The judge’s decision to throw out the abusive racketeering charges is a positive development and a win for advocacy,” Greenpeace USA General Counsel Tom Wetterer said in a statement Tuesday.
Resolute Forest Products sued Greenpeace and its “co-conspirator” Stand.earth, formerly ForestEthics, in May 2016, claiming the groups plotted to defame the Georgia-based logging company as a “forest destroyer” through social media posts and newsletters.
Greenpeace accused the company of cutting down trees in protected areas of Canada’s boreal forest, harming caribou reindeer herds, and exploiting indigenous people by logging on their land without consent.
U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled on Tuesday that nearly all of the 296 “defamatory” statements cited in Resolute’s complaint are “shielded by the First Amendment as not provably false, or statements that ‘cannot reasonably be interpreted as stating actual facts.'”
Tigar quoted from the 1990 Supreme Court decision, Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., which found that opinions could be considered libel.
He concluded the environmental groups’ use of the word “destroy” is “hyperbolic opinion describing a loss of forest trees, which did occur.”
However, the judge refused to dismiss defamation and state law unfair competition claims related to two statements made by Greenpeace employees. In a December 2016 letter to Resolute’s customers, Greenpeace employee Amy Moas wrote that the logging company caused “habitat disturbance” for caribou in the Montagnes Blanches, or White Mountains, of Canada’s boreal forest. In May 2017, Greenpeace published a report titled “Clearcutting Free Speech” stating that Resolute had acquired three harvest blocks inside the Montagnes Blanches and that “all three sites have been logged.”
Quebec’s Minister of Forests contradicted those claims, publicly stating in May 2016 that Greenpeace based those allegations on an inaccurate map of the Montagnes Blanches. Tigar found that because Greenpeace was on notice about the inaccuracy after Resolute filed suit in May 2016, its publication of those statements may have been reckless or done with actual malice, two independent prerequisites for defamation liability.
Tigar rejected Greenpeace’s argument that the potentially false statements were trivial and did not affect the gist of its claims that Resolute’s logging activities harmed the habitat of caribou herds.
“The gist of Moas’s statement is that Resolute harvested inside the Montagnes Blanches, and Moas was on notice that this was not true when she wrote the report,” Tigar found in his 34-page ruling. “The inaccuracy was not minor.”
Despite the survival of claims based on those two statements, Greenpeace welcomed the ruling as a victory for free speech.
“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,” Wetterer said in a statement, referring to the $900 million RICO and defamation suit Energy Transfer – the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline – filed against Greenpeace in 2017.
Tigar dismissed all claims against Greenpeace’s codefendant, Stand.earth. In a statement, Stand.earth’s executive director said Resolute has “spent millions of dollars trying to silence its critics” and only succeeded in turning itself into a “free speech pariah.”
“The right to free speech is one of the core pillars of our democracy, and today a federal court upheld that right,” Stand.earth Executive Director Todd Paglia said. “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.”
Resolute’s attorney Michael Bowe, with Kasowitz Benson Torres in New York, said his client will continue to pursue defamation claims against Greenpeace, and that Resolute will file an appeal to revive claims dismissed by Tigar on Tuesday.
“The Court properly held that Resolute has alleged actionable defamation claims,” Bowe said in an email Tuesday. “We look forward to proceeding expeditiously through discovery to trial on those claims and will pursue appeals to reinstate the rest of Resolute’s claims.”
Greenpeace is represented by Laura Handman of Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington.