In the past two weeks, two organizations strongly critical of Israel have decided to use the courts to press their issues.
On November 1, members of the Olympia Food Co-op filed a defendants’ special motion to strike the lawsuit brought against the co-op by current and former members on September 2.
The lawsuit, as JTNews reported September 28, alleges that co-op board members violated the co-op’s boycott policies by voting to boycott Israeli goods at a July 2010 board meeting. The plaintiffs, Kent and Linda Davis, Jeffrey and Susan Trinin, and Susan Mayer, want to see the boycott overturned and seek monetary restitution from the board members whom, they say, acted outside their jurisdiction.
The motion filed by the 16 defendants claims that the lawsuit violates Washington State’s 2010 anti-SLAPP law, which is designed to thwart lawsuits that intend to penalize free speech. According to this action, the plaintiffs will have to prove the suit does not attempt to squash free speech.
The defendants’ team of lawyers is headed by Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Bruce E.H. Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. LaHood specializes in international human rights litigation. Her past cases have included Matar v. Dichter and Belhas v. Ya’alon, which fought Israeli officials responsible for military operations that killed Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, respectively. LaHood also represented Rachel Corrie and Palestinians killed by Caterpillar vehicles in Corrie v. Caterpillar. Johnson drafted the anti-SLAPP law.
If the defendants win, the plaintiffs will have to pay their legal fees and $10,000 to each of the 16 people named in the suit.
LaHood believes the plaintiffs have little chance of winning. “I think their claims are without merit,” she said.
She said the people she has represented in these cases, including the co-op board, must have their speech protected because of the human-rights aspects of their work.
“Rachel Corrie as well as folks who advocate for the promotion of international law through their speech are defending human rights,” she said. “I think that deserves to be protected.”
Both LaHood and Jayne Kaszynski, the co-op board’s staff representative and their press contact, emphasized that the plaintiffs had other means of overturning the boycott.
“To put something on the ballot — and that can be almost anything — they just have to get 300 members to sign onto that to say ‘yes,’ this is something that people should vote on,” Kaszynski said. “There’s a lot of leeway for how they could have responded to this.
“I think that people mostly want this decision to be in the hands of our members,” she added, “not in the hands of a court.”
Avi Lipman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the motion is without merit. “We’ll be opposing the motion vigorously and on multiple bases,” he said.
More information will be available in about a month, Lipman added.
The plaintiffs discussed a number of ways to address the boycott, said Rob Jacobs, executive director of the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs Northwest. One was a lawsuit.
“I certainly expected [the defendants] would respond to it,” Jacobs said. But he said the decision for the co-op board members to use the Center for Constitutional Rights surprised him.
“Frankly, what you have here are a bunch of activists in Olympia talking to everyone they could to counter the opposition of a boycott that was done in violation of procedures,” he said.
In the second case, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, on behalf of the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, has filed a notice with the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to appeal a summary judgment issued by Federal Judge Richard A. Jones in favor of King County. Late last year the county cancelled advertisements that would have appeared on a dozen Metro buses in Seattle from December 2010 to January 2011.
Following a strong protest and citing security concerns, King County executive Dow Constantine cancelled the ads and the county later changed its rules to not allow political speech in its advertising. Jones cited the county’s decision as “viewpoint-neutral” and therefore protected SeaMAC’s speech.
The ACLU and SeaMAC disagreed.
“There was a contract to run the ads that had been accepted under the county’s existing policy for running ads, and we haven’t seen a compelling reason not to run the ads,” Doug Honig, the ACLU’s communications director, told JTNews.
“I don’t understand why this topic, and most particularly criticism of Israel, should be singled out among all other things for censorship,” said Edward Mast, a spokesperson for SeaMAC. “People have said certain kinds of Israel criticism are not appropriate for this forum. It’s a major setback for free speech generally and for this topic in particular.”
The wording of the ad was carefully chosen by the organization, according to Mast.
“‘War crimes’ is a specific legal meaning,” he said. “It met the conventions of King County, such as they were.”
Jacobs of StandWithUs Northwest said that when the ads were originally scheduled to run, his organization and several others pointed to the 2006 shooting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the increased security at Jewish organizations since that time, and because of that sensitivity the ads did have a potential to cause a disruption to bus service or harm to Seattle’s Jewish community.
“We asked them to go back and look at this again in light of our concerns and about security for the Jewish community,” Jacobs said.
StandWithUs is not a party to this appeal.
Though in its defense the county presented a handful of possible threats to disrupt bus service from people who said they were Jewish, which Jones cited in his brief, Mast noted that law enforcement had not followed up on the people who had made the threats.
As far as the ACLU is concerned, however, the message is not an issue — Honig said the ACLU of Washington has not taken a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The appeal is based solely on the policy that Honig said was not honored and a victory, should the case come to trial, would not overturn King County rules.
“Lawful free speech that exists under lawful policy was suppressed because it caused controversy,” Honig said.
In a statement, the ACLU of Washington’s executive director Kathleen Taylor said it is precisely because the ads were controversial that they should be protected.
“Mild speech doesn’t need protection,” she said. “It is when we are faced with controversial speech, speech that is upsetting to some people, that support of the First Amendment is most important.”
Linda Thielke, communications director for the King County Department of Transportation, could not comment because she said had not yet seen the suit.