Strategic lawsuits against public participation (or SLAPPs) are a tactic used to intimidate activists, journalists, and grassroots organizations that speak out against wrongdoing. Recent years have seen a spike in the use of SLAPPs and related intimidation tactics in the ongoing attempt by powerful interests in the US to stop people from engaging in critical debates about the State of Israel and Palestine—especially on college campuses. These attacks are not widely known, and when they are, advocates’ critiques of the Israeli State are often falsely conflated with anti-Semitism, as the right seeks to silence free speech and deflect attention from human rights issues.
Lauren Regan, Executive Director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, co-hosted a webinar on December 6th with Palestine Legal and the Protect the Protest coalition to discuss this topic in detail. The webinar addressed how SLAPPs and related legal tactics are being used to censor those who advocate for Palestinian rights and/or who promote the BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement (aimed at reducing material support to the Israeli occupation and pressuring Israel to comply with international law). These right-wing efforts have even pushed to expel students from universities and law schools, undermining academic freedom.
CLDC hosted the webinar in order to create a forum for dialogue across organizations about how these activists are defending their rights to protest and free speech.
Anthony C. Alessandrini, Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, shared that some conservative faculty and students across the U.S. have purposefully created a hostile environment to chill debate about Palestinian rights. After the 2016 election, progressive faculty members at Kingsborough came together to host discussions, but this informal faculty “caucus” was immediately attacked by right-wing faculty and administrators who falsely accused the professors of being anti-Semitic.
The Lawfare Project, a right-wing legal organization that purports to be “dedicated to defending and upholding the civil and human rights of the Jewish community,” per its website, sent a letter to at least 15 faculty members at Kingsborough, accusing them of discriminating against outwardly practicing Jewish and Zionist faculty members, grouping those two categories to conflate them as a monolith. The letter directed the faculty members to preserve all records about the professors’ opinions and communications on Israel, Palestine, and Zionism, among many other topics, in preparation for a potential discrimination lawsuit—despite the fact that the letter did not cite a single concrete incident that could provide the valid basis for a lawsuit. Rather than allowing ourselves to be silenced in fear, Alessandrini concluded that progressive colleagues involved in Palestine solidarity work need to come out even more vocally against anti-Semitism and against racism.
J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Professor of American Studies and Affiliate Faculty in Anthropology at Wesleyan University, addressed the politics of an academic boycott within the American Studies Association, and the history and background related to a lawsuit in which she is a defendant. In January 2012 she went as part of a five-scholar delegation to Palestine and later revived an internal discussion of Palestinian rights within the Association. In 2013 the Association voted 2-1 in favor of refusing to collaborate with Israeli academic institutions.
Although this decision was in no way directed toward any individual, in April 2016 four white male scholars represented by the Louis Brandeis Center (which often smears scholars by accusing them of being anti-Semitic) sued in retaliation for the resolution. They claimed that there was a covert campaign to take over Association and that the resolution vote violated ASA bylaws. In March 2017 a federal judge threw out part of the case but allowed three claims to remain. The plaintiffs then added additional defendants, including Professor Kauanui. In February 2019 a judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, but the dismissal was “without prejudice,” allowing the plaintiffs to refile their suit.
Kauanui added that, the apparent goal underpinning the Lawfare Project’s and others’ attacks on pro-Palestine activists and academics is the desire to stop both BDS and academic boycott advocates by: isolating them; taxing their time; chilling their speech; and harassing them. However, another important aim of those who oppose the movement for Palestinian rights is to “data mine” through legal discovery – attempting in a calculated manner to collect information about individual pro-Palestine advocates with the intention of expanding lawsuits by naming more defendants and prolonging legal battles. Ultimately those who oppose the Palestinian rights movement want to “make the enemy pay.” This painstaking work is an effort to construe solidarity activists and Palestinians themselves as the enemy and characterize them as terrorists, attacking their fundamental rights.
Zoha Khalili, Staff Attorney at Palestine Legal, talked about how even small-scale boycotts of Israeli products have been attacked. One example of this was when a food co-op in Olympia, Washington, decided to do just that in 2011, and was SLAPPed with a lawsuit from StandWithUs. Nine years later, in January 2020, this lawsuit still drags on. It went all the way to the Washington State Supreme Court and then back to the Washington State Court of Appeals, with the plaintiff challenging the judge’s dismissal of the case in favor of the co-op.
That case and others have had a profound chilling effect on free expression. Shurat Hadin, a legal group affiliated with the Israeli government, cited the lawsuit when threatening legal action against a Brooklyn food co-op that sought to boycott. Even though the plaintiffs in the Olympia case lost, they considered it a “win” because other food co-ops were discouraged from adopting similar policies, and the intimidation therefore had its desired result.
Lawfare also SLAPPed San Francisco State University faculty and administrators in a case that was found to be baseless. Lawfare attorneys asserted that protest against Israeli officials and engaging in research related to Palestine is inherently threatening to Jewish students, despite the fact that many Jewish students on campus are critical of Israel while also being proud of their Jewish identity. The suit was designed to discourage protests and chill free speech on campus. As the tactic of targeting individuals proved fruitless, Lawfare proceeded to sue the institution without naming individual defendants, to dodge anti-SLAPP laws. Ultimately the university was pressured, through the second lawsuit, into paying nominal legal fees and issuing a pro-Zionist public statement.
In terms of advice to Palestinian human rights advocates, the panelists emphasized the importance of ensuring that all public statements are accurate and consulting with a lawyer early on if there are any concerns about potential SLAPPs, in order to plan how to respond in that event.
In order to be empowered in the face of threats from SLAPP bullies, they also advised activists to talk to a financial adviser to best protect their assets. Another tip is to become familiar with movement lawyers as resources and potentially plan a “meet and greet”—either in person or online. They urged people to continue to broadcast their message, encourage solidarity within the activist community, and speak out for others who are being attacked, to create a safer space for all, and engage in activism to show bullies you will not be silenced. This discourages the use of SLAPPs as a chilling tactic, despite the significant funding behind them.
The takeaway message was to be more public and outspoken about these issues, to expand public discourse and draw attention back to Palestine and the struggle there.