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US court dismisses lawsuit against academics who endorsed BDS

Ruling sends 'clear message' on attempts to silence Palestinian rights advocates, says Center for Constitutional Rights
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators carrying a sign reading BDS (Divestment, Boycott, and Sanctions) march against US aid to Israel on 22 August 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators carrying a sign reading BDS (Divestment, Boycott, and Sanctions) march against US aid to Israel, on 22 August 2016 in Beverly Hills, California (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

A United States court has dismissed a lawsuit filed against several academics and rights advocates over their endorsements of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The Superior Court for the District of Columbia on Thursday granted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and further dismissed the 10 counts charged against the academics.

“I welcome the judge's decision to dismiss this long-running lawsuit as a waste of time and money,” Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American academic and one of the defendants in the case, said in a statement.

“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.”

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The case arose out of a 2013 resolution endorsed by the American Studies Association (ASA), a scholarly organisation in the US that was in favour of joining a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as a part of the BDS movement.

The BDS movement is a non-violent initiative that seeks to challenge Israel's occupation and abuses of Palestinian human rights through economic, cultural, and academic boycotts, similar to the successful boycott campaigns of apartheid South Africa.

Following the vote, several professors filed a lawsuit against the ASA, accusing them of violating the group's bylaws and breaching financial duties. The lawsuit was amended in 2018 to include Salaita, who joined the ASA board years after the vote to endorse BDS took place.

After the original lawsuit, filed in district court, was dismissed in 2019, the professors filed another lawsuit in the superior court. Thursday's dismissal of the case was on the basis of a law aimed at deterring Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), which are used to "punish or prevent the expression of opposing points of view".

The court ruled that the 2013 resolution was a matter of public interest, it was an act meant to further the "right to advocacy", and ultimately that it related to the "ability of foreign scholars to work on relevant issues safely, freely, and without fear of persecution".

“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,” Astha Sharma Pokharel, a staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights which represented Salaita, said in a statement.

“These lawsuits will face strong opposition that will only grow the movement for justice and freedom in Palestine.”

BDS in the US

The ruling on Thursday comes as criticism towards Israel, as well as the Palestinian-led BDS movement, has become a preeminent issue in the United States, both inside and outside of academic spaces.

According to Palestine Legal, a legal and advocacy group focused on supporting Palestinian rights, more than 40 states have introduced some form of an anti-Israel boycott bill in their state legislatures. Multiple lawsuits have been filed in the US against such laws, to varying degrees of success.

In some of these states, the law was struck down by courts as unconstitutional. However, in states like Texas, Kansas, and Arizona, the law was amended to narrow the requirement so it applied only to larger contracts.

And while these anti-boycott bills only exist currently at the state level, Republican Senator Tom Cotton recently introduced a bill that would prevent the US military from contracting with any companies engaged in a boycott of Israel.

Several universities in the country, meanwhile, have had groups on their campuses endorse the BDS movement while facing a backlash from pro-Israel groups, including the faculty of the City University of New York (CUNY)'s law school.

The editorial board for the Harvard Crimson newspaper, a student-led newspaper for the prestigious university, endorsed the BDS movement in April 2022.

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