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Greenpeace prevails in defamation suit by Canadian logging company

A Canadian logging company has argued for years it was defamed by the environmental group Greenpeace, but couldn't clear the malice hurdle to make the case.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge granted summary judgment in favor of Greenpeace in a yearslong case brought by a Canadian logging conglomerate claiming Greenpeace's protests of its operations amounted to defamation.

Resolute Forest Products sued Greenpeace International, a coalition of environmental advocacy campaigners, in 2016 claiming Greenpeace has repeatedly attacked the company for no other reason than to "perpetuate the corrupted entity itself" and "pay the salaries of its leaders and employees.” The company claimed the environmental activists falsely stated 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.

Canada’s boreal forest occupies more than half the country’s land area and occupies eight ecological zones. 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. Resolute owns or operates over 40 pulp, paper, tissue and wood products facilities in the United States, Canada and South Korea, as well as power generation assets in Canada and the United States, according to the company's website.

Resolute claimed the notion that it was destroying Canadian forests was a "malicious lie" intended to raise money for Greenpeace.

Greenpeace, meanwhile, defended its activism. On its website, the group said Resolute was engaging in “textbook examples of SLAPPs" — strategic lawsuits against public participation that seek to silence criticism of powerful companies or people.

A federal court seemed to agree. In 2020, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar, a Barack Obama appointee, awarded Greenpeace nearly $1 million for attorneys fees after it prevailed in an anti-SLAPP motion in the case. Tigar previously dismissed most of Resolute’s claims, including those for civil conspiracy and racketeering.

In its 2022 motion for summary judgment, Greenpeace urged Tigar to throw out the remainder of the case. After seven years of legal fights, "this case remains the same as the day it was filed," Greenpeace argued, calling it "an extraordinarily cynical attempt by the largest logging company in Canada to cut down legitimate, First Amendment-protected speech by nonprofit environmental groups daring to criticize that company’s activities.” 

One sticking point in what was left of the case was the question of malice, a core element of defamation cases in the United States and typically the element most difficult to prove. 

During the summary judgment motion hearing on Thursday, Greenpeace attorney Lance Koonce said that to prove Greenpeace acted with actual malice Resolute must provide more evidence than simply “cobble together a history of ill will” from Greenpeace’s actions. The company also had to prove that Greenpeace's statements were not substantially true, he said.

Tigar, who has consistently ruled against Resolute in this case, showed skepticism of Resolute's arguments.

“If this motion is granted," he warned the company's lawyers, "it will be because Resolute has failed to provide clear evidence of actual malice."

Thursday's hearing zeroed in on claims Resolute was disturbing land with high conservation value in the Montagnes Blanches or "White Mountains," a range that extends from New England into Quebec.

Greenpeace knew Resolute wasn't logging in the White Mountains but claimed the company was anyway, Resolute attorney Michael Bowe argued. To make these allegations, he argued Greenpeace used photos of land Resolute did not disturb.

Greenpeace "did all the work, they looked for stuff, and they came to the conclusion that we weren't in those spots,” Bowe said.

Koonce hit back, arguing Resolute was again trying to expand the scope of the case. The parties spent four years in discovery debating these statements, he told Tigar.

Holding up a map, Koonce disputed Resolute's characterizations of where the mountain range is. He pointed out the area environmentalists asked to protect around an established caribou preserve, saying that proves that the Quebec government considers the mapped area to overlap with the White Mountains.

Tigar’s opinion came swiftly, within less than 24 hours of the hearing.

In his 16-page order Friday granting a summary judgment against Resolute, he said that Resolute failed to prevail on claims that the "Montagnes Blanches area" can only have one meaning, because the area has several boundary definitions and "has acquired more than one meaning."

However, he said it is disputable whether Greenpeace’s 2016 and 2017 Montagnes Blanches statements are provably false.

Tigar added Resolute is unlikely to prevail on its unfair competition law claims or quest for damages, and denied its motion to amend as moot.

Attorneys for Resolute did not respond to a request for comment before deadline. 

"This is a historic day not just for Greenpeace, Inc. and Greenpeace International, but for advocacy groups everywhere," Koonce said in an email. "Hopefully this decision will help make clear to others who try to use the courts to quiet their critics that advocates like Greenpeace will not be silenced."

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Categories / Business, Civil Rights, Environment

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