Last month, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s anti-SLAPP law as unconstitutional, concluding only the first chapter of a lawsuit that was brought to intimidate and punish board members of the Olympia Food Co-op for their decision to boycott Israeli goods as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel for its violations of international law. After the boycott resolution was passed nearly five years ago, five of the co-op’s 22,000 members threatened burdensome and expensive litigation if the board didn’t end the boycott, and rather than bringing the issue to a membership vote, as provided by the bylaws and invited by the board, they made good on their threat and sued 16 volunteer board members. They did so with the backing of StandWithUs, an anti-BDS organization that the Israeli government has acknowledged it uses to “amplify [Israel’s] power.”
Representing the board members, the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP moved to dismiss the case under Washington’s anti-SLAPP law. More than half the states in the U.S. have laws to deter SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation)— cases brought to deter people from speaking out on matters of public concern by burdening them with the costs and stress of a lawsuit. More than three years ago, the trial court agreed that the case against the co-op board members should be dismissed as a SLAPP and awarded attorneys’ fees and statutory damages under the law.
Although the decision was upheld on appeal, the Washington Supreme Court recently found provisions of the anti-SLAPP law unconstitutional, so the case, for reasons completely unrelated to its merits (or lack thereof), will soon be back in the trial court in Olympia. Although the anti-SLAPP law, which was intended to provide a “speedy” resolution to meritless cases, has now been struck down, the Washington legislature is considering reenacting amended legislation to address the Supreme Court’s concerns. Moreover, the anti-SLAPP law is not the only legal mechanism to dismiss the meritless case against the co-op board members.
Legal threats against food co-ops that might consider boycotting Israeli products continue as part of a growing nationwide effort to stifle legitimate criticism of the Israeli government. Shurat HaDin (the Israel Law Center), another organization dedicated to defending Israel and fighting the non-violent tactic of BDS, touted the reinstatement of the Olympia Food Co-op case in its letter threatening to sue the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York, if it boycotts Israeli products. The board of GreenStar Co-op in Ithaca, New York, recently voted to reject putting an Israel boycott referendum to a binding membership vote for fear of being sued.
Legal bullying will sometimes serve its purpose of intimidating people of conscience into silence, but it ultimately cannot stop the growing BDS movement in support of Palestinian rights. The use of peaceful boycotts in movements for social justice has a rich tradition, including in the United States Civil Rights Movement and in the movement against South African apartheid. Threats to sue people engaging in BDS just confirm how powerful this movement has become.