By Annalisa Merelli
When white supremacist Richard Spencer booked a hall in the University of Florida (UF) to do a speech, the institution—despite its complete condemnation of his racist message—didn’t have a right to refuse him the space. As a public university, UF had to abide by the US constitution’s first amendment, which protects all forms of free speech, including hate speech.
This is a principle that finds strong defendants across the political spectrum, as it is considered a cornerstone of American democracy. But there is one exception politicians of both Republican and Democratic camps are willing to make: Banning boycotts of Israel is something that finds bipartisan support, both within state legislation and at the federal level.
This position has been brought under the spotlight by the news that the municipality of Dickinson, in Texas, demanded that people agree to not boycott Israel as a pre-condition to qualify for relief funds after hurricane Harvey. This is not an independent action taken by Dickinson, however, but merely an initiative to comply with a Texas state law, which came into effect on Sept. 1, and requires companies and individuals taking on state contracts and disposing of public funds to sign an affidavit in which they declare not to participate in boycott campaigns against Israel.
“This legislation is an assault to the right to boycott,” says Brian Hauss, a staff attorney with the ACLU, adding that “a dozen states have similar laws.” Indeed, 22 states—Maryland, Texas, Florida, Arizona, Illinois, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, New Jersey, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, California, Michigan, Texas, Nevada, Kansas, and North Carolina—have so far passed some form of legislation against boycotts of Israel.
These laws adopt different measures, from divesting public pension funds from companies that support boycotts of Israel, to denying public contracts to companies that refuse to sign affidavits stating their lack of support to anti-Israel campaigns. In some cases, as in Texas, these laws extend to individuals. For example, earlier this year, a public teacher in Kansas was not allowed to continue holding her position because of her refusal to buy and consume products made by Israeli companies or companies with establishments in settlements in the occupied territories in Palestine.
The US Supreme Court has clearly expressed that “political boycott is fully protected under the first amendment,” says Hass, citing a landmark 1982 case about the right to boycott white-owned businesses in Mississippi to protest segregation. Yet, the laws against boycotting Israel enjoy bipartisan support not just in the states in which they have been passed, but at the federal level: A Senate bill sponsored by Benjamin Cardin, a democrat from Maryland, and Rob Portman, a republican from Ohio, would impose sanctions on foreign companies supporting campaigns to boycott Israel. The bill also condemns the United Nations resolution encouraging countries to divest from Israel to put pressure on it to end the West Bank occupation.
As of Oct. 25, the bill has earned the support of 50 senators, from both parties, including most of the top recipients of donations from the pro-Israel lobby, which donated over $26 million to members of congress ahead of 2016 elections, with a relative majority of funds going to the democratic party. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, America’s largest pro-Israel lobby, lists the fight against the boycott of Israel amongst its legislative priorities.
The ACLU is currently not involved in lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of anti-boycott laws in Texas, but Hass says the organization is open to people who experience discrimination in relief funds allotments based on their political views regarding Israel.