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(Wissam Nassar / Maan Images)

Judge throws out Israel-backed lawsuit against Olympia Food Co-op, upholds right to boycott

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Supporters of the Olympia Food Co-op before a court hearing on Monday, 27 February, which threw out a lawsuit designed to overturn a boycott of Israeli goods.

(TESCDivest)

In a major setback for Israeli efforts to suppress the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in the United States, a judge in Olympia, Washington today dismissed a lawsuit designed to force the Olympia Food Co-op to rescind its boycott of Israeli goods.

The judge ruled that the lawsuit, brought by opponents of the boycott, violated a Washington State law designed to prevent abusive lawsuits aimed at suppressing lawful public participation. The court said it would award the defendants attorneys’ fees, costs, and levy sanctions against the plaintiffs.

While the lawsuit was brought by several individuals against present and former members of the Olympia Food Co-op Board, it was planned in collusion with StandWithUs, a national anti-Palestinian organization, working with the Israeli government, an Electronic Intifada investigation revealed last September.

“SLAPP” lawsuit designed to chill free speech

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), whose lawyers acted for the Olympia Food Co-op argued that the lawsuit was an example of “SLAPP” – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. In a statement this afternoon, CCR explained:

SLAPPs are lawsuits that target the constitutional rights of free speech and petition in connection with an issue of public concern  Although many cases that qualify as SLAPPs are without legal merit, they can nonetheless effectively achieve their primary purpose: to chill public debate on specific issues. Defending against a SLAPP requires substantial money, time, and legal resources, and can divert attention away from the public issue and intimidate and silence other speakers. Washington State’s Anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 2010 to deter such lawsuits.

Today, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee told a packed courtroom he agreed with that analysis and dismissed the lawsuit, ordering the StandWithUs-backed plaintiffs to pay court costs and legal fees.

The judge also also upheld the constitutionality of Washington’s anti-SLAPP law, which the plaintiffs had challenged, CCR noted. Each of the defendants in the case could be entitled to receive up to $10,000 from the plaintiffs in addition to legal fees.

“We are pleased the Court found this case to be what it is – an attempt to chill free speech on a matter of public concern.  This sends a message to those trying to silence support of Palestinian human rights to think twice before they bring a lawsuit,” CCR quoted Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney as saying.

BDS is a national movement, judge finds

In attempting to overturn the Olympia Food Co-op’s boycott of Israeli goods, the plaintiffs had argued that the Co-op could only observe “nationally-recognized” boycotts, and that BDS did not fit that description.

According to live tweets of the judge’s statement by Anna-Marie Murano, on behalf of the Palestine Freedom Project the judge found that BDS was “nationally recognized.”

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TESCDivest (Students & Alumni supporting Evergreen State College’s divestment initiative) also live tweeted today’s hearing:

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CCR Statement in full

Court Finds Suit Is Effort to Chill Boycotters’ Public Statements On Issue of Public Concern

February 27, 2012, Olympia, WA and New York, NY – Today, in a lawsuit brought against current and former members of the Olympia Food Co-op board of directors for their decision to boycott Israeli goods, a Washington State court dismissed the case, calling it a SLAPP – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation – and said that it would award the defendants attorneys’ fees, costs, and sanctions. The judge also upheld the constitutionality of Washington’s anti-SLAPP law, which the plaintiffs had challenged.

In a court hearing last Thursday, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP argued that the court should grant the defendants’ Special Motion to Strike and dismiss the case because it targeted the constitutional rights of free speech and petition in connection with an issue of public concern.

“We are pleased the Court found this case to be what it is – an attempt to chill free speech on a matter of public concern.  This sends a message to those trying to silence support of Palestinian human rights to think twice before they bring a lawsuit,” said Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

On Thursday, the courtroom was filled with interested observers, and boycott supporters held a rally outside the courthouse. Today, the courtroom was filled to overflowing and many co-op supporters spilled into the hallway.

“We’re thrilled that the court saw fit to protect the board’s right to free speech. This decision affirms the right to engage in peaceful boycotts without fear of being dragged through expensive litigation,” said Bruce E.H. Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, who drafted Washington State’s Anti-SLAPP law.

Also at the hearing on Thursday, the court denied plaintiffs’ motion for discovery, which sought to depose defendants and obtain documents. The defendants’ attorneys had argued that lengthy depositions and voluminous document production is precisely the type of burden the anti-SLAPP statute was intended to prevent. Before the case was filed, the plaintiffs sent the co-op board members a letter indicating that plaintiffs would bring a “complicated, burdensome, and expensive” legal action if the co-op did not end the boycott.

“Today’s victory is not only for the Co-op, but one for free speech,” said Jayne Kaszynski, spokesperson for the Olympia Food Co-op, and one of the defendants in the case. ”We look forward to returning all of our energy to the Co-op’s mission.”

SLAPPs are lawsuits that target the constitutional rights of free speech and petition in connection with an issue of public concern  Although many cases that qualify as SLAPPs are without legal merit, they can nonetheless effectively achieve their primary purpose: to chill public debate on specific issues. Defending against a SLAPP requires substantial money, time, and legal resources, and can divert attention away from the public issue and intimidate and silence other speakers. Washington State’s Anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 2010 to deter such lawsuits.

The boycott is part of a global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel for what boycotters say are violations of international law and the denial of Palestinian human rights.  The lawsuit seeks to prevent enforcement of the boycott policy and to collect monetary damages against the 16 past and current board members. The case was filed by five co-op members, purporting to bring the suit on behalf of the co-op itself, which has approximately 22,000 members.

The Olympia Food Co-op is a nonprofit corporation that was formed in Olympia, Washington in 1976. The co-op seeks to make good food accessible to more people while encouraging economic and social justice, and it has a long history of social justice work. In 2010, the board passed a resolution by consensus to boycott Israeli goods.

The case is Davis, et al., v. Cox, et al., Case No. 11-2-01925-7 in theSuperior Court of the State of Washington in Thurston County.  For more information and today’s argument, and to view filings in the case, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is counsel on the case with CCR cooperating counsel Barbara Harvey from Detroit, Michigan, and Steven Goldberg from Portland, Oregon, along with Seattle attorneys Bruce E.H. Johnson and Devin Smith of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. For more information about Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, visit http://www.dwt.com/.

Comments

Excellent article, Ali. This is a milestone for the BDS movement. Great news.

Small but significant victory, we will take them as they come. Great job!

The blockade of Palestine, imposed by Israel over many years, is a crime against humanity. This, coupled with the continuing occupation of Arab lands, the building of settlement on the West Bank and the occupation of East Jerusalem is indicative of the way in which Israel totally ignores and rejects criticism from any source. The United Nations has passed numerous resolutions, critical of Israeli Government actions and policies and all have been ignored.If Governments are unwilling or unable to implement such policies the people should impose their own boycott’s of Israeli goods and services in the same way that South Africa was boycotted during the apartheid years. In itself, this will not stop the Israeli actions, but as in the case of South Africa, it may go a little way to help.

Proud of my fellow Northwesterners. Proud of the judge. A ruling like this should be obvious, but it isn't always to some who have cast justice out of their hearts.

This is a major victory and an inspiring precedent (anti-SLAPP legislation should be multiplied and internationalized). I was also impressed by Olympia's support for "food sovereignty" (see their website). The co-op seems like an all-round thoughtful, intelligent outfit.

Awesome, this will grow and eventually. (hopefully sooner than later) case the rest of the world to demand israel to obey human rights laws.

The court decision was not a major setback for Israel. It was a step forward for Americans. I am a supporter of Israel and I think the boycott is a bad idea, however, I will vigorously defend the freedom of speech for those who are anti-Israel, just as I supported the ACLU when they defended the right of the American Nazis to march in Skokie. Let people clearly see the goals of the people they support.
Liberal college students are starting to see that the BDS movement is not pro-human rights or even pro-Palestinian, but is anti-Israel. As students see that the goal of BDS is not peace, but to support the Palestinian war effort for regime change in Israel, the collective response is becoming: "Wait, . . what?"