Washington supreme court hears arguments on Olympia co-op’s boycott of Israeli goods

The Olympia Food Co-op’s adopted a boycott of Israeli goods in 2010. (via Rachel Corrie Foundation)

The Washington State Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday in the case against sixteen current and former members of the Olympia Food Co-op board of directors. The plaintiffs say the board exceeded its authority by passing a resolution to boycott Israeli goods five years ago.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs — five former members of  the co-op, which has 22,000 members — argued against both the 2010 decision to boycott Israeli goods and against a Washington State law that saw their previous attempts to stop the boycott defeated in lower courts.

Since the case was originally filed in 2011, it has been rejected twice by lower courts on the grounds that it has no merit and qualifies as an attack on public expression. The anti-boycott co-op members have been ordered to pay damages to members of the Olymia Food Co-op board as well as attorneys fees.

The lawsuit followed the board’s 15 July 2010 decision to stop carrying Israeli goods at the co-op’s two grocery stores in Olympia, the capital of Washington state. The decision made the co-op the first grocery store to join the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

When five of the co-op’s members objected, the board offered to put the boycott to a member-wide ballot according to its existing procedures. But instead of pursuing that route, three anti-boycott members ran for board elections. When they lost, they launched a legal action.

Meanwhile, the co-op began removing Israeli products as soon as the decision was made and has since maintained the boycott.

While the complaint against the co-op centered on alleged procedural misconduct, defendants argued — and the courts have so far agreed — that the legal action was really motivated by a wish to terminate the co-op’s boycott of Israeli goods.

SLAPPed down

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which represents the board members, immediately requested to have the case dismissed as a SLAPP — Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. Under Washington state law, a SLAPP is an abusive lawsuit whose purpose is to prevent or deter people from exercising their constitutional rights by saddling them with expensive litigation.

CCR argued that the lawsuit was an effort to silence the co-op’s principled stand, expressed through BDS, against Israel’s human rights violations.

Collusion with Israel

As was revealed by The Electronic Intifada in 2011, just before the lawsuit was filed, the plaintiffs are backed by both the Israeli government and StandWithUs, an anti-Palestinian advocacy group that works closely with Israel.

StandWithUs has been less than forthcoming about its collusion with the Israeli government to pursue the Olympia Food Co-op. But in a friend of the court brief, Jewish Voice for Peace quotes a StandWithUs statement that was once posted on the pro-Israel group’s website, but has since been removed.

“In 2011, StandWithUs filed a lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op in Olympia, Washington, to nullify its boycott of Israeli-made products,” the website had stated. “The lawsuit was the byproduct of the partnership between StandWithUs and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spearheaded by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, and brought against the Olympia Food Co-op and its board for violating their own policies.”

In February 2012, a Washington state judge agreed with the co-op board members that the lawsuit against them was a SLAPP and ordered the anti-boycott plaintiffs to pay $160,000 in damages plus legal fees. The ruling was upheld by an appeals court. Last October, the state supreme court agreed to hear arguments in the case.

Free expression versus access to justice

The Center for Constitutional Rights’ Maria LaHood represented the co-op board members at the supreme court. After the session, she told The Electronic Intifada that the justices pressed both sides over their claims. She said that one justice asked how the plaintiffs were distinguishing between their opposition to the boycott and their claim that the board  breached its authority by deciding to boycott Israeli goods.

Washington’s anti-SLAPP law is considered one of the more stringent of its kind in the country. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington affiliate filed a friend of the court brief last December arguing that Washington’s anti-SLAPP statute is overly inclusive of “both frivolous and legally viable claims,” thereby infringing on the rights to trial by jury and access to the courts.

LaHood said the ACLU has filed such briefs twice before arguing against the state’s anti-SLAPP law. In those past cases, however, the ACLU had argued that the law had been wrongly applied, whereas in this case the ACLU’s brief had focused primarily on the statute and did not weigh in on how it had been applied in the case against the Olympia Food Co-op.

The Lawfare Project also filed a brief arguing the unconstitutionality of the anti-SLAPP law. As Phan Nguyen explains for Mondoweiss, the Lawfare Project is an anti-BDS organization with funding from pro-Israel sources. Moreover, while the Lawfare Project’s brief presents the organization as concerned with the anti-SLAPP law’s infringement on access to justice and the courts, it has in the past praised anti-SLAPP laws.

LaHood told the The Electronic Intifada that the case against the Olympia Food Co-op’s boycott is taking place amid nationwide attempts to curb criticism of Israel and inhibit the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

While the Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed that boycotts are protected free speech, lawmakers in three states have introduced legislation that would punish state-funded universities where faculty or departments adopt or even advocate for academic boycotts of Israeli institutions. None of the bills has become law.

LaHood said it is unclear how long it will take the Washington supreme court to reach what is likely to be a closely watched decision.

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Comments

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cela fait tres longtemps qu israel merite de gaves sanctions mais avec l impunnite us plus aucune justice ne peut exister

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The US government subsidises the Israeli government with US citizens tax dollars --- or what they can borrow! --- so that the Israelis can launch court cases against those who object to the murderous Zionist/Israelis.

Wouldn't the money be better spent dealing with the myriad problems faced by the US citizens? --- Or even to begin paying off the US's crippling debts?

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It is obvious that when pro Israel factions have to file lawsuits in the United States to get Israeli products in a private marketplace that Israel has lost the war. When Israel has to fund lawsuits against a private marketplace to force them to offer products made in Israel you know Israel is in a losing game. This is America. We are entitled to boycott whatever and whomever we please without being dictated to by a foreign regime. Taking the organization to court to compel them to accept products they do not wish to offer is absurd and is a losing game for zionists. You cannot force people to purchase your products.

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Though it was only five x members of this co-op that have and continue to try and squash this free expression, their collusion with other entities, including Israel weighing in with support, reminds me of Monsanto's horrendous actions squashing actions against labelling their GMO products. Pouring money into dragging the issue before the courts sends the message to others that might be contemplating their own form of free expression, it could cost you $160,000, too. It's disgusting.

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In the free world, no one should have to justify decisions or actions that are legal. I feel they were perfectly justified in boycotting Israel, and personally, that is my policy as well.

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I found some local co-ops, that carry Palestinian made goods, and believe in contributing to my local tax-base. However, I intend to contact this co-op right now, and see if they deliver. If B.D.S. is successful, than only buying goods from any type of company that is B.D.S. friendly, is in my opinion, a good way to support the end of the Occupation. Power to all people!
Jane Zacher U.S.A.

Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Silver's picture

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada. She is based in Oakland, California and has reported from Palestine since 2010. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.