A workers unloads a truckload of logs in Howe Sound near Squamish, British Columbia, Canada April 25, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters
Today, a US federal court heard arguments in a lawsuit against Greenpeace that raises serious concerns about freedom of expression.

In May 2016, Resolute Forest Products, a Canada-based logging company, filed a CAD$300 million lawsuit against Greenpeace and Stand.earth, as well as five staff members, under a US racketeering law enacted in 1970 and used to prosecute the mafia. This legal strategy has lead nongovernmental organizations and others to accuse Resolute of trying to silence environmental activists.

The lawsuit was apparently filed in response to one of its campaigns aimed at stopping what it considers is unsustainable logging in the Boreal forest, one of the world’s largest forests and carbon sinks. Resolute alleges not only that it has suffered immense financial harm as a result of Greenpeace’s campaigning, but that Greenpeace itself is a “global fraud” focused wholly on raising money for itself through fraudulent and deceitful campaigns.

Why should we pay attention to this lawsuit?

Because a number of environmental and human rights groups claim that it is emblematic of an abusive legal strategy to muzzle activists that speak against destructive corporate practices, known as “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs. Greenpeace sees the suit as a brazen attempt to either bully it into silence or secure its financial ruin.

Greenpeace US and others were also sued over their activism surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Other environmental activists in Canada, Ecuador, South Africa, and elsewhere are saying that SLAPPs are being used to undermine their work.

SLAPPs are meant to drain activists’ resources and intimidate them into silence. When saddled with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, organizations are forced to divert their attention away from their environmental work and to use scarce resources to defend themselves in court. SLAPPs can also take an emotional toll on the activists named in lawsuits.

In a 2017 report on SLAPPs, the former United Nations expert on freedom of assembly wrote that SLAPPs pose significant threats to the rights of activists to freedom of expression, of assembly, and of association. The UN expert raised particular concerns about the potential use of the US racketeering law at issue in the Resolute case, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), as a vehicle for abusive SLAPP suits. This is because RICO allows corporations to label advocacy groups as “criminal enterprises” and claim enormous amounts in damages.

Freedom of expression is a pillar of democracy. Countries should examine their laws and ensure that they do not facilitate the abuse and proliferation of SLAPP lawsuits. In the face of serious threats to our environment, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and chemical pollution, it is critical for environmental activists and groups to be able to organize and freely express themselves without the threat of baseless lawsuits.