Lawsuit wrong remedy to co-op’s boycott

The conflict in the Middle East will not be changed by the Olympia Food Co-op’s decision to boycott Israeli products. Tensions created by the boycott within the local Jewish community over treatment of Palestinians will not disappear. Allegations of an aggressive anti-Zionist culture at The Evergreen State College will continue.

But you don’t have to agree with the decision of the co-op’s board of directors to understand that the lawsuit filed against them was frivolous.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas McPhee ruled late last week that the lawsuit filed by five co-op members to overturn to boycott of Israeli products constituted an illegal Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

Washington was the first state to adopt an anti-SLAPP law in 1989, which was enhanced by the state Legislature in 2010 to protect individuals from frivolous lawsuits meant to limit free speech. The earlier law only applied to cases involving elected officials and government decision-making.

The new SLAPP law that took effect in June 2010 covers more types of free-speech issues and gives judges the power to dismiss frivolous lawsuits quickly and award legal fees.

Most states now have anti-SLAPP laws to curtail abuses of our civil court system. Defendants who believe they are being targeted by meritless actions or speech-chilling lawsuits can fight back by invoking the SLAPP law to have them dismissed.

This was the case with the ill-considered lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op. It was aimed at denying the co-operative its ability to exercise free speech regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations.

It was, in fact, an attempt to apply a legal remedy to a perceived problem that the plaintiffs could not achieve through the democratic process within the co-op.

The solution was always for co-op members who disagreed with the decision to build support within the co-op’s 22,000-plus members and overturn it. But fewer than 100 members attended the “It’s Our Co-op” public meeting in August 2010, and they could not create sufficient momentum to persuade the co-op board to reverse itself.

In frustration, they filed a lawsuit.

The Olympia Food Co-op was the first co-op to boycott Israeli products and the only one in the United States today. Other attempts in our own state – in Port Townsend and Seattle – have failed because of strong community and membership support against a boycott.

The Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently voted 1,005-653 against a motion that would have paved the way for the organization to impose a boycott of Israeli products.

If that kind of anti-boycott support does not exist in Olympia, then lawsuits are not the answer. If you don’t like the co-op’s policies, shop somewhere else.