Defamation, Free Speech, Crisis, or Whatever: The Case of Dole and Bananas!*

In 2009, Swedish film maker Fredrik Gertten released a documentary film title Bananas!*.  The film is about Nicaraguan banana workers and their battle with banana giant Dole.  The workers claim that Dole knowingly used dangerous pesticides that had adverse health consequence for the workers including sterility.  The 80 minute film debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival in the swirl of media attention.  Here is how the LA Film Festival Described the Film:

“In his most recent film, Fredrik Gertten chronicles the case of Nicaraguan banana laborers, represented by L.A. attorney Juan Dominguez, against the companies that they claim poisoned them with pesticides. Between the film’s completion and its screening at this year’s Festival, critical new elements of the case have come to light.

What happens when a story continues to evolve after the shooting stops? This case study and screening will explore the relationship between documentary filmmaking, objective and subjective point of view, as well as the rights and responsibilities of activist filmmaking.”

That media attention and evolution after shooting was the result of claims by Dole that film was untrue and amounted to defamation.  Dole maintains the claims were fabricated by the plaintiffs’  attorneys .  L.A. attorney Juan Dominguez is viewed by Dole as a villain, not the heroic crusader found in the movie.  US courts have ruled in Dole’s favor:


 “On Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney issued written Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, formally ordering dismissal with prejudice of the two remaining lawsuits against Dole Food Company, Inc. and two other companies, brought on behalf of Nicaraguan plaintiffs who had falsely claimed they were sterile as a result of exposure to the pesticide DBCP on Dole-contracted Nicaraguan banana farms three decades ago.”

Interestingly, Dole and Gertten disagree on the interpretation of this court ruling.  Gertten maintains the ruling does not mean all of the claims are false and that the film is a fiction.  For more details on Bertten’s position see the movies web site  Dole presents its case at

Gertten’s primary defense of the film has been free speech.  He argues that Dole’s efforts to prevent people from seeing the film (Dole tried unsuccessfully to prevent showings at the LA Film Festival) are a violation of free speech.  Groups such as the International Federation of Journalists support Gertten.  See  Dole’s actions include a defamation  lawsuit begun in July of 2009.  Here is how the position is stated on the movie’s web site:

“Dole Food Company is suing filmmaker Fredrik Gertten, producer Margarete Jangård and our production company WG Film for slander and defamation with our film BANANAS!*. The film follows an historic event in an American court, and is a matter of public record – not defamation.

We are supporters of free speech. We believe that filmmakers have the right to make films on important issues and bring stories to the forefront that can create debate and criticism. Lawsuits such as this one are meant to silence and stop all communication and dialogue.

Dole is trying to shift the focus from themselves and their controversial treatment of banana workers on to us and our film. This unfounded lawsuit means more than just silencing a single documentary film. It is a threat against free speech itself and will set precedence for all of us if Dole succeeds. We can not let Dole stop BANANAS!*.”

On Oct. 15, 2009, Dole dropped its defamation lawsuit.  Dole’s motivation was the negative reactions and protests in Sweden over the lawsuit.  “In a statement, Dole said it decided to withdraw the lawsuit ‘in light of the free speech concerns being expressed in Sweden, although it continues to believe in the merits of its case.’

‘While the filmmakers continue to show a film that is fundamentally flawed and contains many false statements we look forward to an open discussion with the filmmakers regarding the content of the film,’ Dole’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel, C. Michael Carter said.,0,2332657.story Gertten views this as a victory claiming his film is balanced

Questions to Consider

  1.  Would you have advised Dole to initiate the defamation lawsuit in the first place?  Why or why not?
  2. Would you have advised Dole to drop the defamation lawsuit?  Why or why not?
  3. When is free speech a form of protection against defamation?
  4. How does the international aspects of this case complicate it?
  5. In the end, how did Dole’s actions help to the movie and its director?
  6. Why would Dole worry about a small, documentary film from Sweden?

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