PAUL HOLMES: Cintas lawsuit highlights the hopelessness of settling public-opinion disputes in court

That sound you hear is chickens coming home to roost.

That sound you hear is chickens coming home to roost.

Citizens Advisers, which labels itself "a leader in socially responsible investing," has called on Cintas Corporation, which makes uniforms, to withdraw a defamation suit it filed against a prominent shareholder advocate. Timothy Smith, SVP with Walden Asset Management, made the supposedly defamatory comments at the company's annual meeting last October, when he urged passage of a shareholder resolution calling for the company to reexamine the efficacy of its code of conduct in preventing sweatshop labor. "This kind of lawsuit risks silencing the voices of shareholder activists across the country who courageously stand up to management at annual shareholder meetings," says Citizens Advisers' corporate responsibility director Joanne Dowdell. But only a few months ago, other leaders of the socially responsible investment movement were supporting the use of legal action to settle disputes between corporations and their critics. Domini Social Investments, for example, filed an amicus brief in the Kasky vs. Nike case. (Activist Mark Kasky is suing Nike for alleged misstatements about its labor practices overseas.) Longtime readers of this column already know how I feel about the Cintas suit. I believe legal action is a clumsy, counterproductive method to settle disputes between corporations and their critics. The difference between me and the folks in the socially responsible investment movement is that I believe that regardless of which side is bringing the suit, whereas they believe it only when they're on the receiving end of the suit in question. That's one of the problems with ideologues. They apply their ethics and their principles selectively. I remember reading in Toxic Sludge is Good For You, by PR gadflies John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, about a corporate PR campaign designed to sabotage a consumer activist's book tour. The company tailed the author around the country, and any time he was scheduled to appear on TV, intervened to make sure its voice was also heard. That's a strategy Stauber and Rampton would have applauded had it been adopted by an activist group. It wasn't wrong because it was wrong. It was wrong because it was a big, mean corporation doing it to a powerless, well-meaning activist. That's the kind of end-justifies-the-means reasoning that gives moral relativism a bad name. The fact is that a court of law is the wrong venue to settle a battle for public opinion, regardless of whether it's critics suing corporations or corporations suing activists. I hope Cintas drops its misguided lawsuit. And I hope the PRSA - which attacked the Nike suit - condemns this one with equal vigor. But I'm not holding my breath.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

    Have you registered with us yet?

    Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

    Already registered?
    Sign in