Freedom of Expression at Stake as D.C. Appeals Court Hears Case Targeting Academics Advocating for Palestinian Rights

Lower court dismissed claims against American Studies Association, Steven Salaita, and others as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation)

May 8, 2024, Washington, D.C. – Today, the D.C. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a
lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA) and some of its former leaders for a 2013 resolution endorsing the academic boycott of Israel. The D.C. Superior Court dismissed all claims last year, finding that they violated a D.C. law designed to deter lawsuits that target people who speak out on matters of public concern. The defendants include Dr. Steven Salaita, an advocate for Palestinian liberation who is represented in this case by the Center for Constitutional Rights. 

Stemming from a lawsuit filed in 2018, today’s hearing took place amid a nationwide crackdown on student protests calling on universities to divest from Israel as it wages a genocidal campaign in Gaza. The case emerges from a longstanding pattern of assaults on the free speech rights of Palestinian solidarity activists on college campuses and beyond. The Deborah Project, which represents the plaintiffs, and the Brandeis Center, which originally brought the litigation, continue to threaten faculty associations with litigation for considering passing boycott resolutions.  

“As this seemingly interminable litigation continues, I watch in awe as thousands of students, faculty, and community members face down extraordinary repression in their devotion to Palestine's liberation. I am honored to join them in refusing to back down,” said Dr. Steven Salaita.   

In 2013, two-thirds of ASA members voted to join a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Four professors originally sued the ASA and some of its leaders in federal court, claiming that the vote had violated the group’s by-laws and that its officers had breached their fiduciary duties. In 2018, they amended the suit to add several defendants, including Salaita, even though he had joined the ASA board two years after the vote. 

A federal court dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, and the plaintiffs promptly filed a nearly identical complaint in the D.C Superior Court. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss under a D.C. law to deter SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. The court initially denied the anti-SLAPP motion, but in response to an appeal by Salaita and the other defendants, the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered the court to reanalyze the case, resulting in dismissal.  

Often, the goal of plaintiffs in cases like this one is not to win but simply to harass and intimidate advocates. Under the D.C. anti-SLAPP law, once the defendants show that the lawsuit concerns protected advocacy, plaintiffs must show that they are nonetheless likely to prevail in court; if they cannot, the suit is dismissed and defendants may collect attorneys’ fees from the plaintiffs. 

“As students and faculty are rising up on campuses all over the U.S. to demand an end to their universities' complicity in Israel's genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, we are hopeful that the court will affirm the dismissal of this meritless case brought to punish academic boycotts of Israel as a sanctionable abuse of the courts to chill speech,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood.  

The Center for Constitutional Rights also represented Dr. Salaita in his case against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which unlawfully fired him in retaliation for his criticism of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. Defendants in today’s case, Lisa Duggan, Curtis Marez, Neferti Tadiar, Sunaina Maira, Chandan Reddy, John Stephens, and the American Studies Association are represented by Whiteford, Taylor & Preston L.L.P., and defendants J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Jasbir Puar are represented by Mark Allen Kleiman and Richard Renner. Seth Waxman argued for the plaintiffs.

For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page. Today’s argument can be viewed on the D.C. Court of Appeals YouTube channel

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at


Last modified 

May 8, 2024