The National Organization for Women (NOW) has asked $60 million in damages from two states and a private organization that have sued NOW, contending that NOW is violating antitrust laws in the boycott it is leading of states that have not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.
NOW also announced yesterday that it wants an investigation into use of Justice Department grant money to pay salaries of two lawyers working on the suit against NOW filed by the Missouri attorney general.
Missouri, Nevada and the Action Committee for Tourism Inc. (ACT) in Louisiana sued NOW in federal court in the spring, charging that its efforts to persuade organizations to boycott states that have not ratified ERA has cost them millions in conventions and tourist business and violates the Sherman Antitrust Act by restraining trade. A trial date for the Missouri suit has been set for Oct. 23.
Lane Carson, a lawyer for ACT, which he says represents hotels, restaurants and convention and tourist groups in Louisiana, said a "rough" projection of the state's loss due to the ERA boycott is $85 million. Missouri has claimed in court that it already has lost $19 million in convention business.
Eleanor Smeal, president of NOW, said at yesterday's press conference that NOW has spent $150,000 in court costs defending against the suits. Covington and Burling, one of Washington's most prestigious law firms, is handling the litigation for free.
Smeal, emphasizing the cost of the litigation, accused the states of trying to "crush NOW and the women's movement" and said that of the 230 organizations that have adopted resolutions supporting the boycott "only NOW is being sued." She said the suits are "meritless" and are a form of "harassment."
"In a way this is not only affecting freedom of speech, but freedom of assembly," she said. "Can Missouri say you must go to unratified states" for convention?
Roger Bern, head of Missouri's anti-trust division, acknowledged yesterday that two part-time lawyers on his staff who have worked on the ERA suit have part of their salaries paid from a Justice Department antitrust grant to the state.
"We have some 40 or 50 investigations pending in our office," Bern said. "Federal and state money is used in all those litigations across the board.
"We don't view this as a political dispute," he said. "We view this as an economic boycott that has caused substantial restraint of trade and we don't see any impropriety in using federal as well as state funds in pursuing that activity."
Justice Department spokesman Mark Sheehan said the law providing for the antitrust money specifically prohibits the Justice Department from instructing states how to use it. Sheehan said the Justice Department declined Missourl's request to file a federal suit against NOW.