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Last month, a judge in Olympia, Washington dismissed a lawsuit tailored 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 which are aimed at suppressing lawful public participation. Interestingly, an investigation by Electronic Intifada had unearthed that the lawsuit against individuals with the Olympia Food Co-op Board was also planned in collusion with a national anti-Palestinian organization called StandWithUs that was working with the Israeli government. Lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) argued that the lawsuit qualified as a SLAPP – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. SLAPPs are lawsuits that target the constitutional rights of free speech and petition in connection with an issue of public concern.
- The Olympia Food Co-op is a non-profit in Olympia, Washington, that not only makes good food accessible to people, but also encourages economic and social justice in other ways. The co-op has about 22,000 members.
- So it has a long history of doing social justice work, including adopting boycotts.
- The board decided to boycott Israeli goods in 2010 by consensus. A few months after that there was a co-op election. Three of the five plaintiffs who ended up bringing the lawsuit, members of the co-op, ran for the election opposing the boycott and they lost.
- They ran for the board on an anti-boycott agenda and were not voted in by the members.
- The board decided to boycott Israeli goods and divest from any Israel investment.
- One Israeli product: gluten free ice cream cones.
- Obviously it had symbolic significance, so the five plaintiffs decided to send a letter to the board promising litigation that would be complicated, burdensome and expensive if the board didn’t end the boycott.
- CCR and CCR cooperating council got involved to represent the board members and decided to file an anti-SLAPP motion as well as a motion to dismiss.
- Plaintiffs were also seeking discovery which of course they had promised. They started out serving 200 pages of discovery on all 16 defendants and trying to depose all 16 defendants. After we filed the anti-SLAPP motion, which actually stays discovery, they sought to depose three of the defendants, as well as making additional document requests.
- We challenged that discovery request.
- Olympia, Washington, is where Evergreen College and that’s also where Rachel Corrie is from.
- StandWithUs is basically an anti-BDS organization.
- The lawsuit against the co-op board members was actually identified by StandWithUs as one of its projects months before the case was even filed.
- StandWithUs also produced and posted online an anti-BDS video with four of the five plaintiffs in the case.
- They described themselves as an international organization ensuring Israel’s side of the story is told.
- They also have, apparently, connections to the Israeli government.
- The hearing was last Thursday, there was a great turnout; they had to move us to a bigger court room.
- The judge ruled that this lawsuit did challenge public participation so it did fall under the anti-SLAPP statute.
- Boycotts are constitutionally protected under the first amendment.
- This kind of suit is exactly what this statute was meant to address.
- We argued that the board under the bylaws has the authority to adopt any policy essentially it wants, that promotes the co-op’s mission.
- The judge did say that it was a nationally recognized movement.
- The victory here sends a message that you cannot sue to chill free speech issues.
Guest – Maria LaHood, Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) senior staff attorney. She specializes in international human rights litigation, seeking to hold government officials and corporations accountable for torture, extrajudicial killings, and war crimes abroad. Her cases have included Arar v. Ashcroft, against U.S. officials for sending Canadian citizen Maher Arar to Syria where he was tortured and detained for a year; Al-Aulaqi v. Obama, to prevent the “targeted killing” of a U.S. citizen in violation of constitutional and international law; Matar v. Dichter, against an Israeli official responsible for a “targeted killing” that killed 15 Palestinians; Belhas v. Ya’alon, against a former Israeli official responsible for the 1996 shelling of a United Nations compound in Qana, Lebanon, that killed over 100 civilians; Corrie v. Caterpillar, on behalf of Palestinians killed and injured in home demolitions, and Rachel Corrie, a U.S. human rights defender who was killed trying to protect a home from being demolished; and Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Shell, for the torture, detention and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists and protestors in Nigeria. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1995, Maria advocated on behalf of affordable housing and civil rights in the San Francisco Bay Area.