New Lawsuits Challenge Anti-Boycott Laws in Arkansas, Texas

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In three new lawsuits, a newspaper publisher in Arkansas and a speech pathologist, a reporter, a writer and two students in Texas are seeking to overturn unconstitutional laws that require them to pledge not to boycott Israel in order to enter into or renew contracts with their states.

Arkansas and Texas are two of twenty-six states that have enacted laws that target advocacy for Palestinian rights, especially boycotts. The U.S. Congress has proposed other legislation aimed at undermining the growing movement for Palestinian rights. Members of Congress are now trying to push a federal bill criminalizing certain boycotts by inserting it into a must-pass end-of-year appropriations bill.

Anti-boycott laws are being proposed and promoted by Israeli officials and Israel advocacy groups. Together with lawsuits, defamatory campaigns against individuals, and extensive intimidation of Palestine advocates, this legislation has created a “Palestine Exception” to free speech.

“It’s unconscionable that public officials are undermining our First Amendment rights to challenge injustices, through boycotts or otherwise, in order to shield Israel from accountability for its systematic human rights violations,” said Palestine Legal Director, Dima Khalidi. “Boycotts for Palestinian rights, just like civil rights boycotts and the boycott against apartheid South Africa, are a peaceful tool to work towards freedom, equality and justice for all in Israel/Palestine.”

Federal courts in Arizona and Kansas have already found that anti-boycott laws in those states, virtually identical to the Texas and Arkansas laws now being challenged, violate the First Amendment. Arizona has appealed the injunction against its law to the Ninth Circuit, which will hear the case in early 2019.

All five lawsuits illustrate the extent to which these laws are attempts to dictate what political viewpoints are acceptable. Individuals who themselves engage in boycotts intended to address Israel’s human rights abuses, as well as companies that object to such political litmus tests, are challenging these blatantly unconstitutional laws.

On Tuesday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of four plaintiffs: two students who were told they had to sign pledges not to boycott Israel in order to judge high school debate tournaments, a reporter who was compelled to sign the certification to keep his job at a Texas A&M radio station, and a writer who lost two contracts as a translator and a speaker at the University of Houston for his refusal to sign the certification.

On December 16, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Bahia Amawi, a speech language pathologist who had worked in Austin suburban schools serving Arabic-speaking students since 2009. Based on the same Texas law, Amawi was told in August that in order to renew her contract with the school district, she had to affirm that she does not and will not boycott Israel.

Amawi told The Intercept that she could not in good conscience sign the certification because she “would not only be betraying Palestinians suffering under an occupation that I believe is unjust...but I’d also be betraying my fellow Americans by enabling violations of our constitutional rights to free speech and to protest peacefully.”

On December 11, the ACLU also filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Arkansas Times, a weekly paper based in Little Rock. Since 2016, the paper has run dozens of advertisements for a local community college within the University of Arkansas system. In October, the University of Arkansas informed the publisher that it would be required to certify that it does not and will not engage in boycotts of Israel in order for the school to pay for ads in the paper.

The publisher refused to sign the certification and instead sued to block enforcement of the unconstitutional law. Owner Alan Leveritt explained in the Arkansas Times that the company “would never sign a contract that’s conditioned on the unconstitutional suppression of free speech.”

Federal courts in Texas and Arkansas are likely to agree with their Kansas and Arizona counterparts that the First Amendment prohibits states from restricting the political views that individuals and companies it contracts with can espouse, whether through words or through expressive actions such as boycotts.