Olympia BDS supporters in Bil’in, Palestine. (Photo: Olympia BDS)
Today, a judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging the Olympia Food Co-op’s boycott against Israeli products. The Co-op’s decision to de-shelve Israeli products was brought to court after five members sued the co-op.
Initially, the plaintiffs petitioned the Co-op to reverse the 2010 board decision. Members of the board then offered to move the decision to a membership vote, which the plaintiffs rejected, opting for a lawsuit. One of the plaintiffs is a supporter of the hard-line Zionist group Stand With US. The Israeli consulate is also backing the group.
The judge tossed the case, finding the plaintiffs attempted to coerce the Olympia Food Co-op. This type of case is called SLAPP suit, or strategic lawsuit against public participation. Washington state has an anti-SLAPP statue, which awards putative damages to the defendants as a way of deterring expensive lawsuits seeking to inhibit free speech. The plaintiffs could be ordered to pay $10,000 to each of the collective members and cover legal fees.
Maria LaHood from Center for Constitutional Rights congratulated the ruling:
‘We are pleased the Court found this case to be what it is – an attempt to chill free speech on a matter of public concern. This sends a message to those trying to silence support of Palestinian human rights to think twice before they bring a lawsuit.’
In a press release, the Co-op announced their victory:
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 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. The lawsuit seeks to prevent enforcement of the boycott policy and to collect monetary damages against the 16 past and current board members. The case 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 Olympia Food Co-op notes that before the plaintiffs filed suit, they sent a letter to the co-op threatening “complicated, burdensome, and expensive.”
As the first anti-BDS case filed in the U.S., the lawsuit acts as a precedent: courts will not rule in favor of bullies. A drafter of the anti-SLAPP law, attorney Bruce Johnson, was “thrilled that the court saw fit to protect the board’s right to free speech. This decision affirms the right to engage in peaceful boycotts without fear of being dragged through expensive litigation.”