SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Greenpeace on Tuesday accused a logging company of misusing federal anti-racketeering laws to attack environmental groups that criticize its logging in North America’s largest forest.
“This is a completely inappropriate remedy,” Greenpeace attorney Laura Handman, with Davis Wright Tremaine in Washington, said during a motion to dismiss hearing Tuesday. “[RICO] was originally designed to reach organized crime, but now it’s being used to reach environmental organizations.”
Handman urged U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar to dismiss a lawsuit accusing Greenpeace of fraudulently conspiring against a Georgia-based paper and pulp manufacturer to pump up its donations.
Resolute Forest Products accused Greenpeace and its “co-conspirator” Stand, formerly ForestEthics, of violating the RICO Act of 1970. Resolute claims the groups conspired to commit wire fraud and mail fraud by spreading false information about it through social media and newsletters and by targeting some of its biggest customers, such as Best Buy, with boycotts.
“We have harm that’s caused by communications directed to our customers, the same communications being directed to donors,” Resolute attorney Michael Bowe, with Kasowitz Benson Torres in New York, told the court Tuesday. “This is a false narrative broadcasted to the world on the internet.”
Greenpeace attorneys say Resolute fabricated its claims of a wire and mail fraud conspiracy, and that the case is really about alleged defamation, which cannot serve as the basis for a RICO claim.
“This is a garden variety defamation claim,” Handman said, adding that only 26 of 218 allegedly defamatory statements were made by the defendants, and of those, only one was made within Georgia’s one-year statute of limitations for defamation.
Resolute claims the conservation groups falsely stated that it cut trees in areas of Canada’s Boreal Forest where it was not logging; that its logging harmed endangered caribou; and that it exploited indigenous people and logged on their land without consent.
“The Canadian Boreal forest has had virtually no deforestation,” Bowe told the court. “To the extent it’s had any, it’s less than a percent, and that percent is the result of industrialization out west.”
Resolute says it has planted more than 1 billion trees in the Boreal Forest and caused no permanent deforestation there.
But Handman said that doesn’t make Greenpeace’s claims about Resolute’s logging untrue.
“It’s not that there are no trees, but there aren’t old trees. Unbelievably, old trees are a good thing. That’s what the Boreal Forest has, and that’s what affects the caribou,” Handman said.
Boreal forests grow worldwide above the 50th parallel. Canada’s Boreal Forest occupies more than half the country’s land area, and occupies eight ecological zones. Most of the world’s Boreal Forests are in Russia, where they are called taiga. The rest are in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Alaska. Boreal forests in general are predominantly pine and spruce, mixed with deciduous trees, and areas of fens and bogs. Each ecological zone is characterized by distinctive mixes of flora and fauna.
Both Resolute and Greenpeace hired experts to support their positions on the environmental impact of Resolute’s logging in Canada.
But Handman said the court is not the proper venue for such disputes to be decided. Allowing litigation over commentary on matters of scientific and public debate could have a chilling effect on First Amendment speech, she said.
Bowe, however, insisted that Greenpeace be held accountable for the alleged conspiracy to harm his client and drum up donations for the nonprofits.
“We are singled out as the bad one, even though there are a dozen logging companies doing the same thing in northeastern Canada,” Bowe said. “Why? Because you have to have a villain to raise money now.”
Toward the end of the packed, two-hour hearing, Tigar asked about the claim that Greenpeace published false GPS coordinates on a photo in 2012 to make it appear that Resolute was logging in a part of the forest where it was not. Tigar asked how Greenpeace could evade the suit if the complaint adequately alleged that Greenpeace knew the information was false when it published it.
Handman said the inclusion of those GPS coordinates was a mistake that her client corrected immediately once it realized the error.
She cited the Aug. 29 dismissal of Sarah Palin’s lawsuit against The New York Times by a federal judge in New York, saying that plaintiffs must present facts to show actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth in a defamation claim.
“They are very demanding standards,” Handman said. “It’s not just throwing in ‘knowingly.’ You have to have facts as to show they know it. It’s not enough to show plausibility to show actual malice.”
Tigar indicated that if he does dismiss Resolute’s complaint, he will likely do so with leave to amend.