Editorials, Opinion

Anti-boycott laws violate our rights

The documentary “Boycott” will make its big screen debut later this month. The film follows several plaintiffs from different backgrounds pushing back against anti-boycott bills passed in multiple states. It highlights the fight against an Arkansas law that allows the state to refuse to enter into contract with businesses or individuals that boycott Israel — or, in the case of news publisher Alan Leveritt, to penalize businesses for not signing a pledge that they are not and will not boycott Israel. As the publisher of an independent news organization that covers local matters, Leveritt refused to sign the pledge on principle — and Arkansas now levies a 20% penalty on all state-agency advertising (like the legal ads that appear  in this paper).

What does this have to do with us? West Virginia passed an identical bill last year that takes effect this July, and Sen. Joe Manchin cosponsored a bill in Congress last year that gives states permission to pass these so-called “anti-boycott” bills. The national bill died in committee, but its mere existence gives states implicit approval to violate our First Amendment rights.

The bill obviously violates the constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech and to peaceful protest — of which boycotting is a form of both. According to Professor Dara E. Purvis, in an article published by The First Amendment Encyclopedia, “If a boycott is an attempt to influence political reform, it will likely be considered to be protected by the First Amendment. If the boycott’s goal is economic, however, the court will likely consider it as purely economic activity rather than First Amendment expression or petition.”

Most business boycotts of Israel (which are rare to begin with) are usually a statement against the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, where most Palestinians make their homes now, or against the high civilian casualties in Israel’s fight against Hamas. As such, these are boycotts that attempt to influence political reform and should be considered protected free speech.

The law also conflates Israel’s government with the Jewish religion. Though Judaism influences Israel’s governance, the two are not the same. It is not anti-Semitic to protest the actions of the government, especially in regards to human rights. Much like the U.S. has boycotted the Beijing Olympics because of China’s treatment of the minority Uyghurs, American businesses and individuals have protested the Israeli government’s treatment of the predominantly Muslim Palestinians.

Director of “Boycott” Julia Bacha traced the origins of the anti-boycott  model bill to the  lobbying groups American Legislative Exchange Council (a conservative group that writes and distributes model legislation) and Christians United for Israel (a large pro-Israel group comprised mostly of evangelicals). With the help of an Israeli journalist, she traced lobbying efforts all the way back to Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. In short, these anti-boycott bills not only violate our constitutional rights, but they are the result of the defiance of the separation of church and state, as well as interference from a foreign government.

We understand that Israel is the U.S.’s political ally, but under no circumstance should American governments flout citizens’ First Amendment rights to show fealty to a foreign government. We are disgusted by the blatantly unconstitutional actions of the West Virginia Legislature and Gov. Justice for passing this law and Sen. Manchin for giving it his support.