On 23 May, Greenpeace was served a $7 million lawsuit by logging giant Resolute Forest Products. We believe this is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). This type of lawsuit burdens Greenpeace with massive legal costs and discourages other environmentalists from talking about what’s happening in the forest. But we aren’t alone facing this type of intimidation tactic used by big corporations to quash public debate. Dylan Powell of Marineland Animal Defense is currently facing a $1.5 million SLAPP, launched when he decided to shine a light on Marineland’s operations. With Ontario MPPs back in the House and with promising anti-SLAPP legislation (Bill 83) on the table, now is the time for all political parties to support strong legislation that protects Ontarians’ rights to free speech and public participation. Dylan shares his story:
My experience with Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) is different than some in that I knew, for at least two years prior to the suit being filed, that I was going to be sued.
To tell the story of the SLAPP suit filed against myself and Marineland Animal Defense, I would have to start with a previous SLAPP suit filed by Marineland Canada in 2004 against the advocacy group Niagara Action for Animals and organizers Catherine Ens and Dan Wilson. That suit, a $250 000 libel claim, revolved around a year old letter the organization had written to a company educating them on the captive animal facility and urging them to take their company picnics elsewhere. For two years they organized against that suit and finally Marineland Canada dropped it.
In the aftermath however, the organization split down the middle over how to respond. Some had burned out; others were afraid to go back and demonstrate against the park, and those who wanted to escalate pressure were in the minority and eventually gave up. Although the suit brought the organizers media coverage and would be a stain on the reputation of the park - a high point was David Suzuki coming to the area to give a fundraiser speech for the sued activists calling Marineland “thugs” - from the years of 2006 to 2009 there was a marked decrease in any organizing or pressure on the park. Larger non-profits who had made the park a focus walked away as well as the grassroots organizers who had built up pressure. The strategy was a partial success for Marineland. It bought them time.
When I became active in this community in Niagara and began to organize protests against the park in 2009, I did so with heavy caution from more seasoned activists in the community.
When myself and others founded Marineland Animal Defense in 2011 - the first ever dedicated campaign against the park - we knew that if we were successful Marineland would attempt this strategy again.
When the call finally came on 21 December, 2012, I was in Ottawa for a large Idle No More rally. I was cold and soaking wet and had just ducked into a coffee shop to warm up. The previous day The Toronto Star had broke a story that Marineland was burying animals on site in mass graves without any permits from the Ministry of the Environment. Stuck with few options to respond - a $1.5 million claim was filed against me, thus changing the media focus from mass animal graves to a mass lawsuit.
In total now, Marineland Canada has filed six lawsuits over the period of December 2012 to June 2013. Those suits center on former employees who have come forward with testimony against the park, the Toronto Star who printed that testimony, and activists who have educated the public about that testimony and more. Damages claimed in total stretch beyond $12 million.
Corporations who know they have this card to play will continue to play it, unrestrained, until new legislation is introduced. They will take the risk of bad publicity as they know it will buy them time and potentially trigger an internal collapse of their opposition.
I sincerely hope anti-SLAPP legislation is finally passed this fall so that this cycle will end. Years from now I do not want to be stuck cautioning new animal advocates in my community about the dangers of exposing the inner workings of captive animal facilities like Marineland Canada.