In largely clearing environmental activist Daniel Morgenstern of defamation charges related to his public criticism of an Israeli recycling company, the district court made a statement against corporate intimidation.

In a partial victory for environmentalists and free-speech advocates, the Jerusalem District Court largely overturned a lower court ruling that environmental activist Daniel Morgenstern defamed the ELA recycling company with his public criticism of its practices.

The district court found Morgenstern not guilty on four charges of defamation – including one that a lower court found him guilty on – and reduced the fine against him from about NIS 100,000 to about NIS 10,000 for the fifth defamation charge, which it upheld. It also ordered ELA – the Hebrew acronym for “Collection for the Environment” – to pay Morgenstern’s court and attorney fees, citing the “unjustified scope of the suit.”

The legal case reached the district court after both Morgenstern and ELA appealed the ruling of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. Attorney Nirit Lotan from Tel Aviv University’s Environmental Justice Clinic filed the appeal on behalf of Morgenstern.

ELA filed the lawsuit against Morgenstern after he publicly accused the company, which is responsible for recycling drink bottles in Israel, of not working to create a proper collection network and improperly taking advantage of the existing bottle-deposit system. It also filed a second defamation lawsuit against him and sent him warning letters. In defamation cases, the plaintiff must show the defendant made false allegations of wrongdoing or otherwise falsely sullied its reputation.

The district court’s ruling can be seen as a warning to companies that might be tempted to suppress criticism with the threat of legal action. One of the reasons the court gave for its decision was that Morgenstern was engaged in legitimate and well-founded criticism and was trying to change ELA’s policies rather than simply to damage it. The court said ELA appeared to have targeted Morgenstern in an effort to silence him and cited two instances where the company had tried to silence critics in the past: threatening to sue a newspaper for its reporting and the umbrella environmental group Life and Environment for giving it a Black Globe award for damaging the environment. In both cases, the company did not follow through on its threats.

In response to the ruling, ELA, whose second defamation lawsuit against Morgenstern is still pending, said, “Even environmental activists cannot hide behind immunity in voicing public criticism when they base it on libel and defamation that is not expressed in good faith. We are pleased that the court ruling states this unequivocally and also ruled against Morgenstern for defamation and compensation.”

Lotan, Morgenstern’s lawyer said the law against defamation allows corporations to “drag citizens criticizing them through long and expensive litigation.” Most people cannot bear the financial and emotional cost of such a process, raising the concern that criticism will be suppressed, she said.

“It’s important to remember that even following the substantial award of expenses that the court issued in Morgenstern’s favor, he came out financially behind in the whole process and that’s without considering the lost time and the emotional strain,” she continued. “An amendment to the law is necessary that will make it possible to from the beginning throw lawsuits out of court that are essentially designed to silence and that deal with a substantive issue of public discourse, such as waste recycling and the functioning of the company responsible for it.”