A federal judge in Washington, DC, on Monday dismissed a lawsuit against the American Studies Association over its decision to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
The ruling is a significant blow to efforts by Israel lobby groups to use courts to harass, intimidate and silence supporters of Palestinian rights in US universities – a tactic known as lawfare.
In his 20-page ruling, US District Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote that the plaintiffs had no standing to file a lawsuit seeking damages on behalf of the ASA, and that their individual damage claims came nowhere near the $75,000 minimum required for them to seek relief in federal court.
At most, the individual plaintiffs could seek damages of a few hundred dollars to cover membership dues they allege were misappropriated, but they would have to find some other venue to pursue their claims, the judge found.
“The court basically said, in no uncertain words, that the plaintiffs suing ASA lied when they claimed to have ‘suffered significant economic and reputational damage.’” Radhika Sainath, senior attorney with the civil rights group Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada. “But, as the court explained, ‘nowhere’ in the lawsuit could the plaintiffs explain what that damage was. It didn’t pass the smell test.”
“I’m thrilled that this baseless case has been dismissed. It served no purpose other than persecuting those who dare to criticize Israeli policy and seek to end the occupation through peaceful means,” Steven Salaita, one of the defendants, told The Electronic Intifada.
“Our victory further illustrates that it’s important to stand firm against attempts to silence those devoted to the cause of justice.”
In 2014, Salaita was fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for social media comments criticizing Israel’s assault on Gaza that year. He sued the university for breach of contract, alleging administrators acted under pressure from pro-Israel donors, later settling the case.
Salaita then found himself targeted by the lawsuit against the American Studies Association.
Along with Salaita, the lawsuit named as individual defendants the academics and Palestinian rights advocates Lisa Duggan, Curtis Marez, Avery Gordon, Neferti Tadiar, Sunaina Maira, Chandan Reddy, Jasbir Puar, J. Kehaulani Kauanui and John Stephens.
“These desperate lawsuits brought to silence advocates of Palestinian rights are not only losers – they’re helping to grow the movement by making even clearer who’s on the wrong side of history – who is the aggressor, who is unreasonable and who wants to silence debate,” Maria LaHood, deputy legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Electronic Intifada.
LaHood, who represented Salaita in the ASA lawsuit, added, “Freedom, justice and equality have always been on the right side of history.”
The complaint alleged that a “cabal of USACBI leaders” surreptitiously took over the ASA and used their positions on its executive committee and national council to foist the boycott resolution on the association’s unsuspecting membership, misspending ASA money in the process.
As part of the solidarity movement, USACBI, the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, argues that Israeli academic institutions should be boycotted because they are complicit in Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian rights.
Driven by Israel lobby
The force behind the lawsuit was the Louis D. Brandeis Center, an Israel advocacy organization that has for years worked to smear Palestine solidarity activism as anti-Semitism, and attempts to suppress it with frivolous lawsuits and bogus civil rights complaints.
Until February last year, the Brandeis Center’s president Kenneth Marcus was an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Last June, the Senate confirmed Marcus as the Trump administration’s top civil rights enforcer at the Department of Education, a position that potentially allows him to pursue his campaign to repress supporters of Palestinian human rights from within the federal government.
The lawsuit against ASA had previously suffered a major setback.
In March 2017, the court threw out the plaintiffs’ key claim that the ASA had acted beyond its charter by backing the boycott.
“The boycott resolution was aimed both at encouraging academic freedom for Palestinians and strengthening relations between American institutions and Palestinians,” Judge Contreras wrote at the time. “Thus, it was not contrary to the ASA’s express purposes.”
But Contreras allowed other claims to go forward – until he eventually threw the lawsuit out altogether.
“The Zionists can’t accept the extent of revulsion over Israel’s crimes so they imagine that any group that stands up for justice has been tricked and manipulated into doing so,” Mark Kleiman, the attorney for J. Kehualani Kaunui and Jasbir Puar, told The Electronic Intifada.
“This blindness partially stems from their own reliance on tricks, bribes and subterfuge to slow down what is rapidly becoming a mass movement,” Kleiman added.
“In this lawsuit they simply made up accusations and then pretended they had been harmed by the things they imagined people had done.”