D.C. Appellate Court Asked to Reverse Lower Court Ruling Refusing to Dismiss Lawsuit Targeting Advocacy as a SLAPP
July 7, 2020, Washington, D.C. – Today, academics who were sued over the American Studies Association’s (ASA) resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions asked the D.C. Court of Appeals to reverse a decision that declined to dismiss the claims under a D.C. law prohibiting SLAPP suits, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Among those appealing today is Dr. Steven Salaita, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights, who is represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights. Salaita was sued for the ASA’s decision to participate in the boycott despite having not joined the ASA board until two years after the vote. The trial court dismissed many of the claims but declined to dismiss those and others under the D.C. anti-SLAPP law, even though it found that plaintiffs’ claims arose from advocacy on an issue of public interest. Today, Salaita and other defendants asked the appellate court to reverse that ruling.
“I'm hopeful that the Court of Appeals will affirm what we've known all along: that the purpose of this lawsuit was to harass us merely for exercising our rights of speech and expression,” said Steven Salaita. “I look forward to continuing the work of seeking justice and equality for all people in the Middle East.”
In 2013, the ASA held a membership vote in which a majority of ASA members voted to join a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement opposing Israel’s human rights violations. Four professors subsequently sued the ASA and ten ASA members for the boycott resolution in federal court. The only factual allegation against Dr. Salaita is that in 2014, after the resolution was passed and prior to joining the ASA board, he published an op-ed noting his work with USACBI, the United States Association for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, during the process to pass the ASA resolution. The federal court dismissed the case—and the plaintiffs promptly filed a separate lawsuit in the D.C. courts. A D.C. judge similarly dismissed many of those claims but declined to dismiss them and other claims under the anti-SLAPP law. In June, a federal appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the federal lawsuit, finding that the plaintiffs could not sue for any alleged injury to the ASA and that they hadn’t alleged sufficient injuries to themselves to be in federal court.
Anti-SLAPP laws protect against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, lawsuits filed against people for having spoken out on an issue of public concern. The goal of a SLAPP is often not to win in court, and many such cases lack merit, but to use the court system to burden, harass, and chill the defendants into silence. Here, the D.C. court determined that the lawsuit had, indeed, arisen from the defendants’ advocacy, the ASA’s 2013 resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions, and dismissed half of the claims, but nonetheless declined to dismiss the claims under the anti-SLAPP law. The appeal argues that the lower court misapplied the anti-SLAPP statute, which requires plaintiffs to present evidence to support their claims, and provides for attorneys fees if their claims are not likely to succeed on the merits, in order to discourage the filing of SLAPPs. Those appealing argue that had the law been applied correctly—assessing the merits of each individual claim and requiring the plaintiffs to back up each claim with evidence—each claim would have been dismissed under the anti-SLAPP law.
“This case is the quintessential SLAPP, brought to punish advocates of boycotts for Palestinian rights and to chill others from such advocacy, lest they also be faced with harassing legal bullying,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood. “Despite their best efforts, these cases will not succeed in squelching the growing movement for Palestinian freedom.”
The lawsuit alleges that defendants breached their fiduciary duties in relation to the resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, that some of them aided and abetted that breach by advocating for the resolution, and that defending the ASA against the litigation plaintiffs brought was a misuse of ASA funds. The Center for Constitutional Rights entered the case on behalf of Dr. Salaita, arguing that he was clearly targeted for speaking out on an issue of public concern and that the claims against him are utterly without merit.
The Center for Constitutional Rights also represented Dr. Salaita in his case against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for being unlawfully terminated due to his tweets criticizing Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, in which the court found that the tweets were protected by the First Amendment. Advocates say the lawsuit against Salaita and the ASA and others is part of a broader nationwide phenomenon suppressing speech critical of the state of Israel and in support of Palestinian rights. Advocates have documented censorship efforts on college campuses and at other institutions targeting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice, and equality.
Defendants ASA, Lisa Duggan, Curtis Marez, Neferti Tadiar, Sunaina Maira, Chandan Reddy, and John Stephens are represented by the law firm Whiteford, Taylor & Preston L.L.P., and defendants J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Jasbir Puar are represented by Mark Allen Kleiman and Richard Renner.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
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 ccrjustice.org.