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Food Co-op Board of Directors Fights Back Against Lawsuit Brought by Five Members Over Boycott of Israeli Goods

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Board Members Were Sued After Joining Boycott in Support of International Law and Human Rights

press@ccrjustice.org

November 2, 2011 – Olympia, WA and New York, NY – Last night, 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 filed a motion to strike the lawsuit, calling it an effort to chill the Board Members’ 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. 

“We hope the court will strike down this effort to silence the Co-op’s principled stand on Israel’s human rights violations,” said Maria LaHood, Senior Staff Attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.  “Allegations that the Co-op Board acted beyond its power are a thinly-veiled attempt to stop concerned citizens from using a nonviolent and historical tool for social change.”

The Olympia Food Co-op is a nonprofit corporation that was formed in Olympia, Washington in 1976.  The Co-op is committed to making good food accessible to more people while encouraging economic and social justice and has a long history of social justice work.  In 2010, the Board passed a resolution by consensus to boycott Israeli goods.  Following the boycott resolution, the Co-op held annual Board elections, and the five candidates endorsed by Olympia BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) won overwhelmingly.  Three of the plaintiffs ran for the board opposing the boycott, and lost. 

“This lawsuit, which seeks to penalize local citizens for exercising their rights as Board members to express views on Israel and the problems in the Middle East, presents a fundamental First Amendment issue,” said Bruce E.H. Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, who drafted Washington State’s Anti-SLAPP law.  “Our nation was born in the middle of a boycott of British goods, and boycotts have played an important role over the centuries in our system of freedom of expression, whether the subject is segregation on the Montgomery municipal bus system, lettuce picked by non-union labor, or apartheid in South Africa,” he added.  

The lawsuit seeks to prevent enforcement of the boycott policy and to collect monetary damages against the sixteen past and current Board members, claiming they acted beyond the scope of their authority and breached their fiduciary duties.  Plaintiffs failed to utilize the Co-op’s member initiated ballot procedure, which allows any member to put an issue to a full membership vote by collecting signatures from 300 members.  Instead of seeking a member vote on the issue, plaintiffs decided to sue the board members in court. 

“By suing individual Board members, the plaintiffs are trying to take the decision out of the hands of Co-op members and give it to the courts,” said Jayne Kaszynski, spokesperson for the Olympia Food Co-op, and one of the defendants in the case.  “A lawsuit is inappropriate here, especially when internal democratic options are available.”

The special Motion to Strike requires parties who bring a lawsuit to demonstrate that it is not a Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation—SLAPP—suit targeting constitutionally-protected free speech.  If the motion to strike is successful, Washington State’s Anti-SLAPP statute, enacted in 2010 to deter such lawsuits, requires plaintiffs to pay attorneys’ fees, costs, and a $10,000 penalty for each defendant.  

SLAPPs are civil complaints or counterclaims that target the constitutional rights of free speech and petition in connection with an issue of public concern, as well as lawful conduct in furtherance of such rights.  While many cases that qualify as SLAPPs are without legal merit, they can effectively achieve their principal 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 others. 

The case is Davis, et al., v. Cox, et al., Case No. 11-2-01925-7 in the Superior Court of the State of Washington in Thurston County.  For more information and today’s filings, 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 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.