A resolution recently introduced in the Missouri state legislature would affirm that boycotts are protected political expression.
The measure, sponsored by Black progressive lawmaker Brandon Ellington, says that “criticism of a nation by individuals, including as a nonviolent citizens’ boycott, does not constitute bigotry against the citizens of that nation.”
It upholds the constitutional right to boycott “any entity when [people] have conscientious concerns with the entity’s policies or actions,” adding that the state should not “punish individuals” for supporting boycotts by denying them contracts.
According to the resolution, boycotts are “an expression of encouraging the government of the nation to modify its policies and practices to uphold the inalienable human rights of all people within its borders.”
Though Ellington’s resolution does not name Israel, it is being introduced at a time when state and federal lawmakers are pushing laws that punish supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.
Under pressure from Israel lobby groups, many politicians claim that criticizing Israel’s human rights violations, or its state ideology Zionism, is tantamount to anti-Jewish bigotry.
“When we talk about Israel, we’re talking about a country that has practiced ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Palestinians,” he added.
Ellington also described Israel’s expulsion of thousands of asylum-seekers from African states as ethnic cleansing.
The Florida bill has sparked free speech concerns among civil rights experts.
The measure focuses on college campuses and conflates criticism of Israel or Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry.
It uses language similar to the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism which has been pushed by Israel lobby groups.
“Applying a double standard to Israel by requiring behavior of Israel that is not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, or focusing peace or human rights investigations only on Israel” is considered anti-Semitic, according to the measure.
“Delegitimizing Israel by denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist” is also defined as anti-Semitism.
This means that someone advocating for a single democratic state in which Israeli Jews, Palestinians and all others have full, equal rights could fall afoul of the law.
The bill claims that these and other examples of alleged anti-Semitism related to criticizing Israel do not “diminish or infringe upon any right” to free speech and “shall not be construed to conflict with state or federal laws.”
But FIRE, a free speech advocacy organization, calls this caveat “an inadequate attempt to salvage the constitutionality of the bill.”
FIRE states that the bill’s “overbroad and vague definitions of anti-Semitism show that even core political speech can, and likely will, be censored by the bill based on the viewpoints espoused.”
That bill, introduced in January, would allow Florida residents to sue or file complaints against teachers or administrators who criticize Israel, according to the Miami New Times.
In defining anti-Semitism to include peace or human rights investigations only focused on Israel, the measure “lays bare what these laws are about: silencing any questions about Israel’s human rights record,” Palestine Legal staff attorney Meera Shah told The Electronic Intifada.
The bill would uphold the rights of states and local governments to pass measures that punish or criminalize individual contractors, pension funds and corporations that support the BDS campaign for Palestinian rights.
Rubio’s legislation faces mounting opposition in the House, where many say it will probably not pass in its current form.
Palestine Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union have warned lawmakers that the bill blatantly infringes on free speech.
These kinds of legislative attempts to police speech and suppress boycotts for Palestinian rights are “alarming on multiple fronts,” Shah said.
Not only do they trample on free speech rights, Shah said, but “they conceal the ongoing violence against Palestinians by changing the subject and they fail to provide meaningful solutions to growing threats of racism at home and abroad.”
Newspaper publisher pushes challenge to anti-BDS law
Alan Leveritt, the publisher of The Arkansas Times, has appealed at the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
The 2017 law “requires Arkansas to create a blacklist of companies that boycott Israel, and require public entities to divest from blacklisted companies,” according to Palestine Legal.
Leveritt, represented by the ACLU, filed the initial lawsuit after the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College “informed the Times that it had to sign a certification that it would not engage in a boycott of Israel if it wanted to continue to receive advertising contracts” from the the university, the newspaper reported.
Leveritt declined, and the paper lost the university contract.
A federal judge threw out Leveritt’s initial case in January, ruling that political boycotts are not protected under the First Amendment.
But the ACLU says that the law clearly violates constitutional protections “by penalizing disfavored political boycotts.”
The civil rights group has appealed the case on Leveritt’s behalf.
“Allowing the government to force people to relinquish their First Amendment rights or pay a penalty for expressing certain political beliefs disfavored by the government would set a dangerous precedent,” Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said.
“This ‘pay-to-say’ tax is blatantly unconstitutional and we’re committed to seeing the law struck down,” Sklar added.
The ACLU and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have brought cases against state anti-BDS laws.
However, Republican lawmakers in Arizona are trying to pass another version of the state’s anti-boycott measure, which “appears to attempt to circumvent the court injunction against the current anti-BDS law,” according to the Phoenix New Times.
Brian Hauss, an ACLU attorney, called it a “transparent attempt to avoid another defeat in court by passing a face-saving measure that would narrow the law into practical oblivion.”
The proper response, Hauss added, “would be to repeal this unconstitutional law in its entirety.”