That Gunns, the Tasmanian timber company, got the go-ahead in the Victorian Supreme Court yesterday to proceed with its civil action against 14 individuals who it claims have sought to damage its business has enraged its enemies. This litigation by Gunns, they say, is an attack on freedom of speech and on the right to protest.
Wilderness Society spokesman Greg Ogle told the ABC that he was concerned about the impact the lawsuit is having on freedom of speech in Australia. He said the Wilderness Society iwas “fielding a lot of inquiries from ordinary people, just asking, ‘What can we say? Can we say this to protect our forests?’ That’s the implication of this case.”
Mr Ogle wants to ban Gunns and other companies from bringing similar litigation in the future. Unfortunately he, and others who have been vociferous in their condemnation of Gunns for bringing legal proceedings to protect its interests and business reputation, are barking up the wrong tree, as it were.
The Gunns litigation has never been about the abolition of the right to protest, or the right to freedom of speech. Gunns has never sought, and no court would give it, a remedy which would close down the right of individuals to criticise, even in scathing terms, Gunns’ forestry business. Nor does Gunns seek, and again no court would allow this, an end to the right of protestors to continue their activities.
Rather, this case has always been about where one draws the line between legitimate protest and the erosion of the ability of businesses to go about their lawful work, and between the right to free speech as opposed to impugning the reputation of a business in such a way that it damages its capacity to go about its business.
There is little doubt that Gunns has been ham-fisted in the way it has approached this litigation and it has paid the penalty, by not only having to withdraw actions against six defendants, including veteran campaigner Bob Brown, but having to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the legal costs of those six lucky people.
But while one can criticise Gunns’ legal tactics, one cannot deny it its day in court.
And a piece of gratuitous legal advice for all the anti-Gunns brigade out there –keep up your criticism and protests but remember that no right is absolute.