Monday, February 27, 2012

Judge Tosses Lawsuit to Overturn Olympia Co-op's Boycott of Israeli Goods BY JEREMY PAWLOSKI
A judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to overturn the Olympia Food Co-op's boycott of Israeli goods, ruling that the lawsuit was an illegal "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation," or SLAPP. Bruce Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine in Seattle, an attorney for the defendants in the lawsuit, said following the judge's ruling that SLAPP lawsuits are illegal under an enhanced anti-SLAPP statute he and another staff attorney at Davis Wright Tremaine helped draft.

"SLAPPs are usually designed to throttle free speech and force the speakers to spend unnecessary litigation costs," Johnson said.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee ruled Monday that the plaintiffs who sought to overturn the co-op's boycott of Israeli goods failed to show that the co-op's board acted outside its authority when it enacted the boycott in July, 2010.
Nine of the co-op's 10 board members voted to remove Israeli products from store shelves.

McPhee also ruled that the issue of whether consensus was necessary among co-op staff in enacting the boycott was not material to the case, as had been argued by the plaintiffs who brought the suit seeking to nullify the boycott. McPhee ruled that the co-op's board never exempted itself as the final authority with respect to the right to enact a boycott.

McPhee also addressed the plaintiffs' contention in its lawsuit that the boycott was not "nationally recognized," as is required under the co-op's boycott policy.

McPhee said the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or BDS, which supported the boycott, "is a national movement."

Members of Olympia's BDS movement have supported boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel "until it ends occupation of Palestine, respects the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and gives equal rights to Palestinians living inside of Israel," according to its website.

McPhee also ruled that the defendants' speech in enacting the boycott was protected free speech involving an issue of public concern. He also ruled that the SLAPP statute itself is not unconstitutional, as had been argued by the plaintiffs' attorney, Bob Sulkin.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are five co-op members who opposed the boycott. The defendants in the suit are 16 current or former co-op board members.

Sulkin said following McPhee's dismissal of the suit that he will appeal McPhee's opinion to the Washington Court of Appeals.

McPhee said that after he returns from a week's vacation, he will consider a written order awarding damages in the case. Under Washington's SLAPP statute, each defendant in the lawsuit is potentially entitled to an "anti-SLAPP penalty," of $10,000, in addition to attorney's fees.

Israeli products that were removed from the co-op's two stores after the boycott, one in East Olympia and the other on Olympia's West Side, include gluten-free crackers, ice cream cones and a moisturizing cream.

In McPhee's concluding remarks, he recognized that his opinion will most likely be appealed by the plaintiff's' attorney. He suggested that one way to avoid more costly litigation by both sides would be to put the question of the boycott to a vote by its full membership. McPhee added in his remarks, however, that he has no authority to require any of the parties to put a boycott vote to the co-op membership.

Johnson pointed out outside court that last year, the co-op board offered to facilitate a member-initiated ballot that would have put a vote on the boycott to the co-op's full membership. However, Sulkin refused that offer, Johnson said.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5445

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