Revised Israel Anti-Boycott Act still threatens free speech

Activists at a 26 July rally in Baltimore protest the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which was introduced by Maryland’s Senator Ben Cardin. New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand pulled her support for the bill on 1 August. (Elizabeth Woodson/via Facebook)

A US bill aimed at criminalizing the boycott of Israel remains a threat to free expression despite proposed changes, more than 100 human rights groups have warned.

In its original form, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, brought to the US Congress last year by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, could impose prison sentences and heavy fines on organizations or their personnel that participate in a boycott of Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank and the Syrian Golan Heights.

The powerful Israel lobby group AIPAC has made the bill one of its top legislative priorities as part of its growing effort to obstruct the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign for Palestinian rights.

Earlier this month, Cardin and Republican Senator Rob Portman announced slight amendments to the bill, suggesting the changes would address major free speech concerns brought forward by leading civil rights groups.

But the American Civil Liberties Union contends that the amended bill still violates free speech protections and would be challenged in court should it take effect.

“Recent amendments to the bill alleviate its most draconian aspects, but do not solve its underlying constitutional infirmities,” the rights groups state in a new memo.

The bill currently has 281 sponsors in the House of Representatives and 55 in the Senate, but has faced strong grassroots opposition.

Last year, dozens of US faith-based organizations endorsed a call in defense of the First Amendment right to participate in boycotts.

Empowering surveillance

In addition to prohibiting political speech, the new memo warns that the bill, backed by Israel advocacy organizations, “would empower overzealous presidential administrations” to target, surveil and investigate supporters of the boycott campaign.

Arab and Muslim communities will likely face the brunt of exacerbated persecution by the state, they add.

The memo points to recent data assembled by the civil rights group Palestine Legal that points to increasing censorship and suppression of advocacy for Palestinian rights in the US.

Palestine Legal says that it responded to more than 300 incidents of suppression in 2017, including censorship, baseless lawsuits, violence and false accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism – a 19 percent increase from the year before. The firm has tallied nearly 1,000 incidents in total since January 2014.

The new memo also highlights troubling statements made by lawmakers and Israel advocates who overtly support legislation to chill political speech, especially on college campuses where the BDS movement is growing in popularity.

A Washington state lawmaker, for example, boasted that he sought to “prohibit [BDS] at the state legislature level and say it is illegal” so he could “just shut down these conversations” on university campuses.

If students want to protest on campuses, “that’s just fine,” he added. “But we’ll settle the question for them, the adults in [the] legislature,” state senator Michael Baumgartner told a local radio station last year.

Washington state introduced a non-binding resolution opposing the BDS campaign in January 2017.

Currently, two dozen states in the US have passed measures, supported by Israel lobby groups, intended to thwart and punish Palestinian rights advocacy.

Kansas law remains unconstitutional

While major civil rights groups are urging politicians to reject the federal anti-BDS law, Israel-aligned state lawmakers are scrambling to protect their measures against mounting legal challenges.

Kansas politicians are attempting to amend a 2017 state law that punishes advocates of the BDS campaign after a federal judge blocked enforcement of the law in January, citing free speech violations.

As it was written, the law requires individuals or companies to sign a document certifying that they do not engage in a boycott of Israel, which the ACLU has argued is a direct violation of the First Amendment.

Amendments to the bill, which advanced in the state legislature on Monday, would narrow the ban so it no longer would apply to individuals or small contracts, the Associated Press reported.

An ACLU lawyer said that if the amended bill passes, the state law’s restrictions would no longer apply to their client, Esther Koontz, a math teacher who was denied a state educational training contract because she supports the BDS movement and could not sign the required declaration in good conscience.

While the ACLU would have achieved all of the relief that it could for Koontz under the amended law, the law itself would still be unconstitutional, the lawyer told the Associated Press.

“Though Kansas has in the past prohibited investments by its public pension system in South Africa or Sudan, it does not prohibit contractors from participating in boycotts against nations other than Israel,” AP added.

Citing the federal judge’s ruling to block the Kansas law, Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights and more than a dozen other rights groups warned the state of Missouri last month that failure to withdraw unconstitutional anti-boycott bills pending in the state legislature “could result in costly legal challenges.”

Another lawsuit, filed by the ACLU, is pending against a similar bill in Arizona.

Human rights activists in Massachusetts successfully helped to defeat an anti-BDS measure in the state legislature in February.

Tags

Comments

picture

Are they going to boycott Israel from boycotting anyone else on earth?
Are they going to demand Israel lift the boycott of GAZA?
Are they going to force Trump to end all sanctions and tariffs?

(1) Government has ZERO business interfering in Civilian boycotts.
(2) Boycotts are the most Democratic and PEACEFUL of actions.
(3) Boycotts are FREEDOM of SPEECH.
(4) Boycotts are FREEDOM of ASSOCIATION -- DISassociation.
(5) Boycotts are VOTING with dollars.
(6) Boycotts PEACEFULLY withhold "power/energy" from those with whom one disagrees without engaging in violence.
(7) In "Capitalism", the system we CLAIM to follow, where and with whom you spend your money is ENTIRELY up to YOU.
The Citizens United Supreme Court decision firmly established that the right to spend money is a form of free speech. That means that the right to NOT spend money is also a form of free speech. Organizing a boycott -- an act of NOT spending money -- is then protected free speech in the same way that soliciting campaign funds to spend on promoting a political candidate or partisan viewpoint is free speech.

picture

All of the points expressed in the previous commentary by Angustry are perfectly well stated and align with my thoughts entirely.

Since the funding of speech has been codified into US law as Money is Speech ... then how we choose to spend both individually or collectively in association with other of like minded citizens is perfectly within our rights.

That our elected representatives have been cowed into suborning the public will and common decency in support of a foreign political ideology (Zionism)(that we find reprehensible in practice), and wherein all agency of the Jewish State is employed to deny the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people that we deem to be self evident.

When all other paths to justice for the Palestinians have been cynically blocked or violently subverted, what other remedy or hope for redress is left to the Palestinians?

It is crucial for Americans to be able to freely choose not to support nor invest in any country that we find abhorrent.

Criminalizing our right to hold Israel morally and financially accountable for its actions by withdrawing our financial support of it is an abridgement of our rights to speech, association, and free agency; and renders the Palestinians without friends while subjecting them to the whims of a government that deems them without basic human rights or legitimacy.

Boycotting Israel is the only peaceful means that is left to American citizens of conscience when voting no longer matters to effect any change.

Doing so will save both Israeli and Palestinian lives.

I pray for the day when our government becomes morally courageous (and congruent enough to live up to its own purported ideals) by withdrawing its support of the apartheid regime in Israel and holding it accountable to the democratic ideals and international norms *we say we uphold* via diplomatic pressure and a financial sanctions regime.

Add new comment

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).