Olympia, WA – The constitutionality of a Washington State law protecting citizens from meritless lawsuits that undermine free speech rights was defended today in oral arguments before the Washington Supreme Court. The lawsuit at issue had challenged the Olympia Food Co-op board’s decision to boycott goods from Israel in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The law protects against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which are filed against defendants because of their speech or public participation on a matter of public concern. SLAPPs are brought to silence the defendants by burdening them with the costs and stress of a lawsuit, irrespective of the ultimate merit and outcome of the case. The case was filed by five co-op members against 16 current and former board members. A lower court swiftly dismissed the case as a SLAPP and held that participation in the boycott is protected by the First Amendment, a decision upheld by the Court of Appeals.
“This case is part of a nationwide orchestrated effort to silence speech critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinian human rights,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Maria LaHood. “It is also a prime example of the importance of Anti-SLAPP laws: three years after this meritless SLAPP was filed, concerned citizens who were once volunteer co-op board members―and no longer even serve on the board―remain embroiled in a lawsuit over speech protected by the First Amendment. It’s long past time for this harassment-by-lawsuit to be stopped.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights has fought myriad forms of repression against people who speak out on behalf of Palestinian rights in the United States. These silencing efforts have included attempts to curb student activism; to pass legislation that limits the right to boycott; and to punish university faculty for their speech critical of Israel, as in the case of Professor Steven Salaita, whom CCR also represents.
“We believe that Washington law appropriately protects the rights of ordinary citizens to take a stand on the Israeli-Palestinian controversy without fear of a retaliatory lawsuit designed, in the words of our Legislature, to cause ‘great expense, harassment, and interruption of their productive activities,’” said Bruce E.H. Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, who argued the case before the Washington Supreme Court today.
Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals previously rejected the challenge to the constitutionality of the Anti-SLAPP statute. Both courts also awarded and affirmed, respectively, $10,000 in statutory damages for each of the sixteen defendants, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs.
“We’re entering our fourth year of dealing with this frivolous lawsuit,” defendant Grace Cox said. “Plaintiffs are suing us with the express intent to force the Co-op to end its boycott. Using the legal system to attempt to bully the Co-op out of supporting the people of Palestine is unacceptable. This is exactly why Washington State citizens need this anti-SLAPP law.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights is counsel in Davis, et al., v. Cox, et al with CCR cooperating counsel Barbara Harvey from Detroit, Michigan, and Steven Goldberg from Portland, Oregon, along with Seattle attorneys Bruce E.H. Johnson, Ambika Doran, and Angela Galloway of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. For more information about Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, visit https://www.dwt.com/.