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.
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.
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.
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.