Judge: Lawsuit Violates Washington Free Speech Protections
February 27, 2012 – Olympia, WA – In a landmark ruling, Judge Thomas McPhee has declared a lawsuit against the Olympia Food Coop illegal under Washington State law and awarded legal fees and sanctions to the defendants. Lawyers for the Olympia Food Co-op argued in court that a lawsuit brought against the store for its participation in a boycott of Israeli goods should be dismissed as illegal under Washington’s anti-SLAPP legislation.
Washington law forbids SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), which target the right of free speech by forcing defendants into costly legal battles. Despite ultimately being found meritless, these suits make the exercise of constitutionally protected speech costly and difficult. “This ruling has huge implications for justice,” says Rochelle Gause, a board member and defendant in the lawsuit, adding “with growing awareness around this issue, the bullying and intimidation employed by those who defend Israeli Human Rights abuses at all costs is becoming less and less viable. Hopefully this judgment will open up the door for more businesses and organizations to heed the call and join this movement for human dignity.”
“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,” said Maria LaHood, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including several failed candidates for the board of directors, wrote that the coming suit was intended to hamper the Co-op’s ability to participate in the boycott of Israeli goods. The letter, dated May 31, 2011, states in part that “we will bring legal action against you,” and that the execution of the boycott would become “complicated, burdensome, and expensive.” In response, the board of directors reiterated that the proper process for overturning a boycott is a “member-initiated ballot”, and that the opponents of the boycott could put it to a vote of the membership, and Judge McPhee noted that the plaintiffs offered no evidence that they exhausted all manner of challenging boycott.
“The opponents of this boycott have had every opportunity to rescind the boycott using the fair and democratic process laid out in the Co-op bylaws,” says Johan Genberg, a longtime co-op member, adding “[The plaintiffs] wanted to punish the store for speaking out for social justice, but isn’t that exactly what makes the Olympia Food Co-op unique? The store reflects the values of this community.”
Farihan Bushnaq, a Co-op member since 1983 adds “as a Palestinian refugee and a member of the Olympia Co-op I wholeheartedly support the boycott, as a way to save Israel from its own excesses, and to end the continued dehumanization of the Palestinian people under Israeli control.”
The Olympia Food Co-op, formed in 1976, is a nonprofit corporation with a mission to “contribute to the health and well-being of people by providing wholesome foods and other goods and services” and to “encourage economic and social justice”. The Co-op has participated in many national and local boycotts, including those against Norway for whaling practices and Colorado for anti-gay legislation. In 2010, the Board of Directors reached a consensus decision to remove Israeli products. The boycott urges Israel to comply with international law, end its occupation of Palestinians, and respect the rights of refugees. Members of the co-op suggested the boycott in response to the 2005 call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) by a broad coalition of over 180 Palestinian civil society organizations.
The Co-op’s decision to boycott Israeli products, the first of its kind in the nation, sparked several months of constructive discussion on the store’s relationship to social justice. The subsequent election for the Co-op Board demonstrated widespread support for the boycott among the membership when the five publicly pro-boycott candidates won by a large margin in a record turnout election.
Under anti-SLAPP legislation, defendants will be eligible to recoup attorney’s fees and penalties.
The case is Davis, et al., v. Cox, et al., Case No. 11-2-01925-7 in the Superior Court of the State of Washington in Thurston County.
Organizers are available to speak with the press.
(originally published at http://www.olympiabds.org/2012/lawsuit-against-olympia-food-co-op-declared-illegal-lawsuit-against-public-participation.html)