American Studies Association Attacked for Academic Boycott of Israel
In December 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) passed a historic resolution to endorse the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In doing so, it became the second U.S. academic association to pass an academic boycott resolution, following the Association for Asian American Studies. Multiple academic associations have since passed similar resolutions, generally endorsed BDS, or agreed to consider BDS. To the ASA members who voted by a two-to-one margin in support of the boycott, the vote “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” Palestine Legal provided legal support to the ASA, from the run-up to the vote, to the aftermath of the resolution’s success, as hasbara organizations launched vigorous campaigns to punish the ASA.
Pressure Campaigns & Lawsuit Threats
The ASA received thousands of hate mail messages from Zionists responding to action alerts. Some messages included violent imagery, and many contained racist, homophobic rhetoric, and legal threats. Professors and American Studies departments associated with the ASA were targeted by campaigns from donors and alumni demanding that university administrators defund American Studies departments or cut off their ability to participate in the ASA. In response, a few universities withdrew their institutional membership in the ASA and according to the opposition blog “Legal Insurrection,” over 250 college and university presidents made statements condemning the resolution.
In January 2014, William Jacobson, Zionist activist, law professor, and “Legal Insurrection” blogger, submitted a complaint to the IRS to challenge the ASA’s tax-exempt status. The complaint argued that the ASA’s academic boycott is not consistent with its educational purpose and goes against public policy, and the IRS should therefore strip the ASA of its tax-exempt status. To date, the ASA has not received any notification that the IRS responded.
At the same time, the Shurat HaDin Israeli Law Center threatened to sue the ASA unless the organization “immediately take all necessary steps to cancel the boycott of Israeli institutions and academics.” Shurat HaDin claimed that the academic boycott resolution is anti-Semitic, illegal and discriminatory.
Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights responded on behalf of the ASA, writing to Shurat HaDin to inform them their threat was based on unsupported allegations, and that the ASA’s boycott resolution is core political speech, protected by the First Amendment. We emphasized that the ASA resolution is grounded in the same anti-discrimination principles as other historical divestment and boycott strategies such as the South Africa divestment movement and civil rights boycotts in the US south. To date, no lawsuit has been filed.
Legislative Attacks on Academic Freedom
In addition to the legal threat directed at the ASA itself, bills were introduced in 7 states (New York, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, Kansas, South Carolina) and the U.S. House of Representatives which, if passed, would have sanctioned or condemned universities with associated organizations that voted to support academic boycotts of Israel.
A coalition of civil rights groups, including Palestine Legal and CCR, urged lawmakers to recognize that these bills violated the First Amendment and threatened academic freedom. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against South African apartheid, also expressed “grave concern” about these legislative efforts.
We defeated the most dangerous bills in New York and Illinois that would have had direct and binding results on state funding for universities. But symbolic condemnations of the ASA passed in a few states. The following is a state-by-state breakdown of the anti-boycott legislative proposals.
On January 28 2014, the New York State Senate passed S.06432, which denied state aid to universities that funded membership in organizations that supported boycotts of Israel. New York State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver introduced a similar bill in early January, which was later withdrawn and amended. The amended bill, A. 8392A, reduced state aid to the university in the amount spent to fund travel, lodging or membership funds in an organization that had endorsed a boycott of Israel.
The New York Times called these bills “an ill-considered response to the American Studies Association resolution [that] would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent.” The New York Civil Liberties Union, CCR, NLG, Columbia University faculty, the American Association of University Professors, The Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York, and New York State United Teachers, as well as numerous grassroots organizations also opposed the bills.
On Friday, June 20, 2014 the New York State Legislature ended its session without passing either bill.
In February 2014, Illinois State Senator Ira Silverstein introduced a bill denying state aid to universities that subsidize faculty or staff membership in academic organizations that endorse the boycott of Israel. Senator Silverstein also proposed a nonbinding resolution condemning all academic boycotts. Vigorous and organized opposition resulted in the defeat of both the bill and the resolution for that legislative session.
Maryland State Senator Joan Conway Carter and Delegate Ben Kramer also introduced bills in the Maryland Senate and House which would reduce state aid to universities that fund membership and activities in organizations supporting the boycott of Israel. After these bills stalled, Delegate Kramer introduced similar language into the Maryland State budget bill, which passed in Maryland’s General Assembly (GA) after the GA conference committee revised Kramer’s language significantly. The final language, while condemning the ASA boycott and academic boycotts generally, is non-binding and has no legal force.
Palestine Legal and other groups warned lawmakers that the Maryland bill could violate the First Amendment and threaten academic freedom “by penalizing universities and faculty for taking public positions based on their political and moral principles.” Pro-Israel organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington also opposed the bill.
In February 2014, Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) introduced a bipartisan bill in Congress in direct response to the ASA vote. Dubbed the Protect Academic Freedom Act, H.R. 4009 would deny federal funds to academic institutions or groups within those institutions that “participate” in the academic boycott of Israel. The bill did not advance out of committee or gain additional sponsors. Palestine Legal worked with CCR, NLG and CAIR to urge the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee to oppose this legislation, which, we said, “seeks to punish political speech on matters of public concern at institutions of higher education . . . [and] threatens core First Amendment principles.”
South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida
A non-binding resolution condemning the ASA boycott passed in the South Carolina House on February 18, 2014.
In Pennsylvania, a resolution condemning the ASA boycott, HR 627 passed in the House on March 12, 2014. An identical resolution introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate, SR 279, did not advance.
The Florida State Senate adopted a resolution (SR 894) with similar language condemning the ASA boycott on April 11, 2014, which CCR and Jewish Voice for Peace said “impermissibly intrudes into the academic freedom of faculty members who wish to speak on matters of public concern on the basis of differing viewpoints of certain Senators, in violation of the First Amendment.”