A logging company’s bullying tactics are once again on the losing end of the law. Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California threw out Resolute Forest Products’ (Resolute) racketeering claims against Greenpeace and Stand.earth, two environmental nonprofit organizations. The court also dismissed all but two of Resolute’s original 296 defamation claims, largely on First Amendment grounds, finding that many “lack[ed] a cognizable legal theory or sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal theory.” The court determined that only two narrow defamation claims and a UCL claim merit proceeding to the next stage of litigation. This marks a third rebuff from a U.S. court against Resolute’s suit, filed to silence Greenpeace and Stand.earth’s efforts to highlight Resolute’s controversial logging practices in Canada’s boreal forest. The district court's message is clear: Resolute cannot wantonly use the U.S. legal system to silence public discourse.
Resolute, a Montreal-based logging company developing a reputation for using litigation to retaliate against critics, holds rights to log on tens of millions of acres in Ontario and Quebec. Resolute has come under intense scrutiny for unsustainable logging practices in Canada’s boreal forest. Instead of cleaning up its act, Resolute tried to muzzle opponents by taking them to court.
Resolute’s $300 million (CAD) lawsuit against Greenpeace and Stand.earth is one of a series of a strategic lawsuits against public participation, or “SLAPP” suits, the company has brought against opponents. The purpose of these SLAPP suits is to silence critics by saddling them with exorbitant legal fees if they dare to speak out against Resolute’s logging practices. Resolute’s claims in this case were based, in part, on the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a law originally intended to target organized crime. These RICO claims asked for Greenpeace and Stand.earth to be labeled “criminal enterprises” for their criticism of Resolute.
Previously, courts in both Georgia and California called out Resolute for its flimsy case. Resolute first brought its suit in Georgia, but the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Georgia granted Greenpeace and Stand.earth’s request to transfer the case to California, finding that Resolute’s business operations in Georgia were insufficient to establish proper venue there. The Georgia court also touched on the case’s dubious foundations, holding, “Plaintiffs do not…provide any information about what…‘falsehoods’ Defendants communicated. Nor do they provide a factual basis from which to infer that defendants committed fraud or extortion…” The Northern District of California was equally unimpressed. The court dismissed all of Resolute’s claims, though it allowed Resolute to file an amended complaint. Yesterday, nearly three years and over 6,000 pages in briefs later, the district court held that even Resolute’s amended RICO complaints didn't pass muster.
The district court’s ruling is crucial not only for the environment but also for the health of public discourse. Resolute’s attempt to use the courts to silence environmental organizations threatened to set a dangerous precedent for stifling free speech, and drew opposition from organizations like the Freedom of the Press Foundation, First Amendment Project, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. In 2017, over 100 authors and thought leaders, including Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry, and Yann Martel, signed a pledge with Greenpeace to defend free speech, the right to public participation and “those who peacefully protect the world’s forests.” Major publishers, including Penguin Random House and HarperCollins also spoke out against Resolute’s suit. NRDC joined 90 other public interest organizations in an advertisement denouncing the lawsuit as “an attack on public discourse, free speech and the very heart of our democratic society.” Yesterday's ruling set a strong message that these SLAPP suits are not going to dampen legitimate public debate about the health of our environment.
While the court gave a major blow to Resolute, the fight to protect Canada’s boreal forest continues. Each day, forestry companies log an average of 3,858 acres of boreal forest—equivalent to 10,000 NHL hockey rinks. This rampant logging threatens the ways of life of Indigenous Peoples, iconic species like boreal caribou, and the global climate. Canada’s federal and provincial governments need to act quickly in partnership with Indigenous Peoples to protect this treasured ecosystem, which contains some of the world’s last intact forests. Today’s ruling means that calls to protect the boreal will not be silenced. Now it’s time for Canada’s leaders to listen.