By Matthew Belloni
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Free speech advocates can go bananas over a new court ruling against food giant Dole.
A Los Angeles judge has awarded $200,000 in attorneys fees and costs as punishment for filing a defamation lawsuit against the filmmakers behind "Bananas!*," a controversial documentary that claimed Dole exposed workers in Nicaragua to harmful pesticides.
"Bananas!*," which played at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival, investigated a 2008 lawsuit against Dole by Nicaraguan workers who claimed that exposure to DBCP pesticides made them sterile. After the film was completed, the lawsuit was revealed to be based in part on fraudulent information. But Swedish filmmakers Fredrik Gertten, Margarete Jangard and WG Film AB went forward with screening the film anyway.
Dole sued claiming defamation but dropped the case in October 2009 amid free speech criticism from groups in Sweden. Now Dole can add Los Angeles judge Ralph Dau to its critics. Judge Dau granted the filmmakers motion under California's anti-SLAPP law, which protects against lawsuits intended to stifle debate on topics of public importance. The filmmakers were awarded $200,000 in fees and costs.
"We are extremely happy and relieved with the court's ruling after this year-long struggle," says director Gertten in a statement. "Corporations such as Dole must respect freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. These conglomerates have unlimited resources available to them to get their messages out, while independent filmmakers who are under attack while trying to uncover the truth, have very limited means to defend ourselves."
Reaction from Dole's attorney was not immediately forthcoming.
The $200,000 fee award isn't surprising, given the case was voluntarily dismissed by Dole (the filmmakers' lawyers actually requested about $50,000 more in fees). It illustrates the risk of bringing defamation cases based on the content of films or other media in states like California with strong anti-SLAPP laws.
"The fee award is particularly gratifying because it sends a very important message," says filmmaker attorney Lincoln Bandlow. "I'm very happy to tell my Swedish clients that the First Amendment (protecting free speech) is still alive and well in America."