Suing Co-op for Participating in Human Rights Boycott Violates Anti-SLAPP Statute, Lawyers Say
February 23, 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, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP argued in a court hearing that the case should be dismissed because it is an effort to chill the board’s public statements on an issue of public interest. The lawsuit 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 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.
“This boycott is part of a rich tradition of free speech and nonviolent protest, including the Civil Rights Movement and the movement against South African apartheid,” said Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The court should strike down this effort to silence the co-op board’s principled stand on Israel’s human rights violations – a stand it had every right to take, regardless of whether one agrees with it.”
Before the co-op case was filed, the plaintiffs’ lawyer 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. At today’s hearing, defendant’s lawyers argued that the resulting lawsuit is 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. 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 board’s boycott decision is a classic exercise of freedom of speech, and, because it involves a matter of intense public concern, it is clearly protected by the new law,” said Bruce E.H. Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, who drafted Washington State’s Anti-SLAPP law.
The board members’ attorneys also asked the court to deny the plaintiffs’ request for discovery, arguing that lengthy depositions and voluminous document production is precisely the type of burden the anti-SLAPP statute was intended to prevent. They defended the constitutionality of Washington’s anti-SLAPP statute, which the plaintiffs challenged in their opposition to defendants’ motion to strike the lawsuit. The lawsuit seeks to prevent enforcement of the boycott policy and to collect monetary damages against the 16 past and current board members.
“We hope the court recognizes this lawsuit for what it is: an attempt by a few members to impose their will on the organization through the courts rather than following the democratic processes of the co-op,” said Jayne Kaszynski, spokesperson for the Olympia Food Co-op and one of the defendants in the case. “We look forward to re-focusing our energy on our mission and the needs of the community as a whole.”
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/.
The Olympia Food Co-op is a member-based, not-for-profit, natural foods grocery store with two locations in Olympia, WA. The Olympia Food Co-op has provided healthy, organic and local food to the Olympia area since 1977, with an emphasis on promoting social and environmental responsibility. The stores are collectively managed and largely volunteer-run. Visit www.olympiafood.coop.
The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.