Court dismisses claims arising from 2013 Boycott Resolution as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), siding with Steven Salaita and others
March 2, 2023, Washington, D.C. – The D.C. Superior Court yesterday dismissed a lawsuit against the American Studies Association (ASA) and some of its former leaders for a 2013 resolution endorsing the academic boycott against Israel. The court found that the claims primarily arose from advocacy on an issue of public interest and were not likely to succeed. Those targeted by the suit included Dr. Steven Salaita, an advocate for Palestinian rights represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which secured dismissal of all the claims against him under a D.C. law to deter SLAPPs, or Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.
“I welcome the judge’s decision to dismiss this long-running lawsuit as a waste of time and money,” said Salaita. “I am happy to finally be freed of this burden and hope that the ruling will deter pro-Israel outfits with no means of winning a debate beyond harassment and defamation from trying to impoverish those of us committed to the wellbeing of the Palestinian people.”
In 2013, two-thirds of ASA members voted to join a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to generate opposition to Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians. Four professors originally sued the ASA and some of its leaders in federal court, claiming that the vote had violated the group’s by-laws and that its officers had breached their fiduciary duties. In 2018, they amended the suit to add several defendants, including Salaita, even though he had joined the ASA board two years after the vote.
A federal court dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, and the plaintiffs promptly filed a nearly identical complaint in the D.C Superior Court. The court initially denied the anti-SLAPP motion, but in response to an appeal by Salaita and the other defendants, the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered the court to reanalyze the case, resulting in yesterday’s ruling.
The purpose of anti-SLAPP laws is to deter lawsuits that target people who speak out on matters of public concern. Often, the goal of plaintiffs in such cases is not to win in court but simply to harass and intimidate advocates. Under the D.C. anti-SLAPP law, once the defendants show that the lawsuit is based on protected advocacy, plaintiffs must show that they are nonetheless likely to prevail in court; if they cannot, the suit is dismissed as it was in this case, and defendants may collect attorney’s fees from the plaintiffs.
“This ruling should send a clear message to those trying to silence advocates speaking out against Israel’s human rights abuses: boycotts are legally protected, and attempts to stifle such advocacy through the misuse of courts will not be tolerated,” said Astha Sharma Pokharel, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “These lawsuits will face strong opposition that will only grow the movement for justice and freedom in Palestine.”
The Center for Constitutional Rights also represented Salaita in his case against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which unlawfully fired him in retaliation for his criticism of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza. The lawsuit against him and the other academics is part of a broader nationwide effort to suppress speech critical of Israel, advocates say. The Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal have documented censorship efforts on college campuses and at other institutions.
Defendants Lisa Duggan, Curtis Marez, Neferti Tadiar, Sunaina Maira, Chandan Reddy, John Stephens, and the American Studies Association were represented by Whiteford, Taylor & Preston L.L.P., and defendants J. Kehaulani Kauanui and Jasbir Puar were represented by Mark Allen Kleiman and Richard Renner.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.