This week, Greenpeace—along with Freedom of the Press Foundation and dozens of other advocacy groups—are launching an important campaign called Protect the Protest, which aims to draw attention to dangerous tactic that corporations use all too often to chill the free speech of Americans.
SLAPP suits, or “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” are brought by wealthy individuals or organizations in an attempt to silence critical speech --- powerful people bring these type of libel lawsuits knowing they won’t win on the merits, but they hope they can silence critics by bleeding them dry of resources or bankrupting them altogether.
Greenpeace is the defendant in two particularly egregious lawsuits that we wrote about earlier this year that actually accuse Greenpeace of violating the RICO statute—a law used to go after organized crime—for engaging in routine advocacy. These type of lawsuits chill the speech of non-profit organizations and protesters, and prevent public transparency and accountability of those in power. The suits also directly impact press freedom.
SLAPP suits are particularly dangerous when used against journalists and news organizations. In the past few years, we’ve seen several high profile cases ofextremely wealthy individuals and corporations threaten to sue or actually sue public interest news organizations for libel over stories which they didn’t like.
The non-profit news organization Mother Jones had to fend of an incredibly expensive lawsuit against a billionaire political fundraiser a few years ago that they were worried may ultimately bankrupt the organization. The civil liberties news website Techdirt faced a similar lawsuit that had them contemplating shutting their doors last year. (Both eventually won their cases.)
And of course, billionaire Peter Thiel infamously funded a series of lawsuits that ultimately destroyed Gawker.
The billionaire with the most prolific history of bringing lawsuits against journalists who report critically on him currently occupies the White House. Donald Trump brought over half a dozen SLAPP lawsuits against journalists over his decades in public life and has threatened over a dozen more.
It’s important to emphasize in almost all these cases, the lawsuits were never going to win. Anyone who glanced at the stories in question could tell the speech of the defendants was protected by the First Amendment. The problem is these powerful people often don’t care about winning, they care about inflicting damage. Maybe they will be able to decimate the news outlet by forcing them to spend millions in legal fees. Even if the plaintiff loses, the next time the news outlet will think twice before going forward with an investigation. Or maybe they’ll scare the countless other news organizations who may be planning similar stories.
(Note: while Gawker did lose an invasion of privacy case that eventually bankrupted the company, it had several other libel suits funded by Thiel that were pending, all of which were standard SLAPP suits. The invasion of privacy case would’ve likely been overturned by an appeals court if Gawker had the funding to continue fighting.)
Ultimately, the Protect the Protest campaign is not just about Greenpeace. Luckily, they have an excellent team of lawyers and have decided to very publicly fight back against these dangerous threats. I have no doubt they will prevail. This campaign is about protecting all of the smaller non-profits, the smaller news organizations who will think twice about reporting on people in power due to the fact that they know they may be subject to millions of dollars of litigation for speaking out. And we are proud to stand with them as they expand this fight.
You can find more information about the campaign here, and here’s how you can join the fight.