Will protests against corporations become illegal?
Twenty Tasmanian campaigners speaking out against Gunns Ltd, the Tasmanian woodchip company, are being sued for almost $6.4 million. They are accused of conspiracy and interference with trade and business.
The 216-page writ was filed in the Victorian Supreme Court on 14th January and targets outspoken environmentalists including Peg Putt, Alec Marr, Geoff Law and Bob Brown. EMA Legal will represent Gunns in their challenge to free speech on the environment.
Tying up their key critics in court for a year or two could be all Gunns want. It could give them the needed breathing space to go on with plans unchallenged. Litigation is extremely expensive, but it is also tax deductible – Gunns posted a $107 million profit last year. They may not expect to win the case, but it’s a taxpayer subsidised way of stymieing their critics.
The Federal election gave this company the political environment it needed to expand its plans. It is intending to build a huge pulpmill in Tasmania (see article “Gunns pulpmill fast-tracked“) and could also be moving into Victoria’s forests. Might they want a clear path to continue their clearfelling and woodchipping plans without public criticism?
Well, we don’t want them in Victoria, and we will continue to say so. We will work to keep Gunns out of East Gippsland’s forests, even if twenty lawyers a-leaping turn up on our doorstep.
It seems that such operators care little for public opinion. Having scraped bare and burnt much of Tasmania’s forested landscape, they now claim that a group of people pointing to their atrocities could do more damage to their image than their own deeds – out there for all to see.
Detailed scrutiny of the company’s activities will be bad for its public image even if it wins the litigation.
Recently, the two British campaigners who were sued by McDonalds had a win. The epic “McLibel” case began when McDonalds sued a couple of low income campaigners for defamation of the company. Not only did it lose McDonalds a lot of public goodwill and sales over the two years the case was in court, but in February the European Court of Human Rights found that the two defendants did not get a fair trial and ordered compensation of $58,000 from the British Government. The decision may force a review of British laws on legal aid funding, libel and free speech.
Many US states have made laws punishing companies which used the courts in this way as they realise that not all litigation was about a legitimate grievance.
Gunns’ front man, John Gay, may not want advice from greenies, but here it is anyway; if he’s trying to convince the world what a caring sensitive company he runs, bludgeoning citizens with a giant lawsuit isn’t the way to do it.