Judge tosses lawsuit against co-op over boycott

OLYMPIA — A lawsuit against a food co-op that decided to stop carrying products from Israel was thrown out Monday, with a judge saying the boycott was protected free speech that was lawfully enacted by the co-op’s board.

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in September by five members of the Olympia Food Co-Op against several board members over a 2009 decision by the board in support of a boycott. 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 dismissing the suit, Judge Thomas McPhee cited a 2010 law that limits lawsuits aimed at silencing activists, known as an Anti-SLAPP law.

“The law is designed to provide for an expeditious dismissal of meritless lawsuits that target free speech,” attorney Bruce Johnson, who represented the co-op and also helped craft the language of the law, told The Associated Press. “Behind the law is the notion that people who are involved in public discussion and public debate shouldn’t be sued simply for the fact they participated in a public debate.”

McPhee ruled that plaintiffs failed to show that the board acted outside of its authority when it enacted the boycott. He also ruled that the 2010 law was constitutional. He 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.

He said that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or BDS, which supported the boycott, “is a national movement,” The Olympian reported. The group supports boycotts to compel Israel to respect Palestinian rights.

McPhee said he will consider a written order awarding damages in the case at a later date. Under Washington’s statute, each defendant in the lawsuit is potentially entitled to an “anti-SLAPP penalty” of $10,000, in addition to attorney’s fees.

Bob Sulkin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that he was disappointed with the ruling and is weighing his next steps in the case.

“It’s the Court of Appeals or state Supreme Court who will decide this,” he told the AP.

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