Ruling the anti-SLAPP law unconstitutional, Supreme Court sent lawsuit back to Thurston
The ongoing lawsuit aimed at forcing the Olympia Food Co-op to rescind its boycott of Israeli products continued with a hearing on October 2nd in front of Thurston County Superior Court Judge Erik D. Price. The hearing concluded with the granting of limited discovery and the issuance of a stay on depositions until the court resolves the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.
The lawsuit was originally filed in September 2011 when five plaintiffs, purporting to represent the whole of the Olympia Food Co-op membership, sued sixteen current and former members of the Co-op’s board of directors. The lawsuit seeks to overturn the Co-op’s 2010 decision to boycott Israeli products until the state abides by international law and acknowledges full and equal rights for Palestinians.
Those who filed the lawsuit have claimed to only take issue with the process through which the boycott was implemented, arguing that the board of directors acted outside of the powers allotted to them when they reached consensus to observe the boycott and implement it at the Co-op stores. Other developments, however, suggest that the backlash over the boycott stems from the fact that it targets Israel, and is not related to disagreements over process.
Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, the now plaintiffs sent a threatening letter to those they would eventually sue, demanding that they “cooperate” to “rescind the Israel Boycott and Divestment policies.” The letter dictated further, “If you do what we demand, this situation may be resolved amicably and efficiently” or else the signatories of the letter would “bring legal action” that they threatened would “become considerably more complicated, burdensome, and expensive…” The lawsuit has been filed as an alternative to more democratic options that exist for those wishing to challenge the boycott, such as a member-initiated ballot procedure provided by the Co-op’s bylaws.
In February 2012, the lawsuit was dismissed under anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) legislation and the plaintiffs were ordered to pay attorney fees and restitution as stipulated by the anti-SLAPP law. The law itself was implemented in order to discourage frivolous lawsuits aimed at silencing free speech. Subsequently, in April 2014 the Washington State Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. It wasn’t until a hearing before the State Supreme Court in May 2015, during which the anti-SLAPP legislation was deemed unconstitutional, that the case was remanded back to Superior Court. While Israel advocacy groups characterized the Supreme Court’s decision as a victory against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS), the decision did not address the legality of the Co-op’s action, or the legitimacy of the boycott, but was rather a ruling only on the constitutionality of the anti-SLAPP law.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the lawsuit has been the revelation of significant involvement from outside forces, including national Israel advocacy groups and even the Israeli government itself. As Phan Nguyen has meticulously documented in outlets such as Mondoweiss, internal documents from the international organization StandWithUs show the group’s integral role in formulating the lawsuit, even though the group’s leadership has publicly denied its involvement. Even more important, however, is that the documents show active coordination between StandWithUs and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including a secret meeting in March 2011 with then Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor and the eventual plaintiffs, during which the prospects of a lawsuit were discussed. After denying direct involvement for several years, the Supreme Court decision appears to have emboldened StandWithUs, who have since openly admitted to providing a $400,000 bond to ensure that the case would be heard by the Supreme Court.
The next hearing in the lawsuit will take place on February 19, 2016, when the court will rule on the defendants’ motion for dismissal.
Andrew Meyer is Policy Analyst and Communications Manager for the Rachel Corrie Foundation and is a research assistant at The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures. Follow him on Twitter @littlofalot