Courts are no place to resolve issues

McDonald’s Australia has taken on a legal battle in a small Victorian town which will test whether the court really is a smart place to fight a controversial issue.  And it will test the wisdom of a multinational suing individuals who disagree with its plans.

Residents of Tecoma, in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, have sustained a long struggle against a proposed 24-hour McDonald’s in their town.  The campaign came to a head recently when protesters occupied the site to block construction.

After a two-week vigil and rooftop sit-in, McDonald’s went to court and won an injunction to end the blockade.  However they went much further, lodging writs for damages against eight named individuals for the rising cost of delayed construction – including lost sales and hiring security guards.

Granting an interim injunction the Victoria Supreme Court not only ordered to protesters to stay away but also ordered them not to use social media in a “call to arms” to incite further obstruction or damage.  McDonald’s said the company respected the right to lawful protest, but argued it needed to seek relief from the court to proceed with construction under an approved planning permit.

Protest spokesman Garry Muratore was stating the blindingly obvious when he said “This is a PR battle more than a legal battle.”  Yet for a company like McDonald’s it is also a fundamental question of whether issues can ever be effectively settled in a court room.  After all, it was McDonald’s which triggered the infamous “McLibel” case in London against two activists who distributed a leaflet critical of the company. That became the longest-running case in British legal history and a casebook example of how legal action can turn into a costly and embarrassing corporate PR disaster.

They certainly aren’t the only company which has tried to use the courts to deal with pesky protesters. Earlier this year, Bank of America urged prosecution of a San Diego man who wrote anti-bank slogans in water-soluble children’s chalk on the public footpath outside local branches. Amazingly, in California the resulting charges could have seen 40-year-old Jeff Olsen jailed for up to13 years for vandalism.

Olsen refused to have the charges reduced by agreeing to community service cleaning up graffiti, and after a four day trial, a jury acquitted him. Mayor Bob Filner called it a “nonsense prosecution” and blamed the bank and an over-zealous city attorney.

Unlike McDonald’s decision to sue the “Tecoma Eight”, Bank of America declined to pursue its own legal action against the lone protester.  But the ill-conceived prosecution generated months of anti-bank publicity and adverse social media commentary.  Given their previous history, only time will tell whether McDonald’s continue to think it’s a wise move to take punitive legal action against individual citizens who don’t want the Golden Arches in their town.


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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