Updated 4/7/2014 UPDATE: The Defending Dissent Foundation joined with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild to fight anti-boycott measures in several state legislatures.
As we reported earlier this year, the American Studies Association (ASA) passed a resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israel. State lawmakers in Illinois, New York and Maryland introduced bills to cut funding from state institutions that pay the way for scholars to attend ASA conferences, in other states and in Congress, resolutions condemning academic boycotts in general and/or boycotts against Israel were introduced.
We believe that boycotts are protected by the First Amendment (and the Supreme Court agrees) and are a vital tool for peaceful dissent. So, we asked you to take action, and you did! Thank you! The dedicated efforts of a broad coalition including civil liberties groups, academic associations, as well as groups that work on Israel-Palestine have prevented the most draconian measures from passing. The coalition recently got a shot in the arm when Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a leader in the anti-apartheid movement) wrote a letter of concern about the anti-boycott measures being introduced around the country.
See below for updates on what is happening in each state and Congress Throughout our history, people’s movements have made creative use of a limited number of tools to speak truth to power to effect change. From writing letters to street protests, from public forums to boycotts, our democracy demands that people be free to use these non-violent and legal means to voice our opinions. Our colleges and universities hold a special place in our democracy, providing the space for students and faculty to exchange ideas, to discuss, disagree, and debate the most controversial issues of the day. For many, the first taste of political action or civic involvement comes on campus, so we get pretty exercised when governments attempt to stifle that activity, no matter what the issue. But that’s what’s happening. Lawmakers in New York, Maryland, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Florida, as well as in Congress, have attempted to choke off campus debates on one particular issue: Israel-Palestine, by punishing or censuring faculty and student groups that support boycotts of Israeli institutions. Defending Dissent Foundation joined with broad coalitions in Maryland and Illinois to beat back terrible bills. In Illinois, a bill that would have cut state funding from The Supreme Court has long held that political boycotts are protected under the First Amendment (NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co.). And boycotts have a strong legacy in the U.S. from the Montgomery bus boycott to the UFW grape boycott to the boycotts against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Three academic associations have recently passed resolutions in support of a boycott of Israeli academic institutions to protest what they perceive as human rights violations against Palestinians: the American Studies Association, the American Association for Asian American Studies, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Organization. As a result, lawmakers have penned bills to punish these associations and make others think twice about following suit. If that isn’t chilling free speech, I don’t know what is! Certainly the issue is controversial, as are academic boycotts. But the tactic is without a doubt legal and protected by the Constitution. The fact that lawmakers are attempting to deny members of the higher education community the right to boycott because they disagree with the aims of the boycott is illegitimate and unconstitutional. The tack most lawmakers are taking is to deny funding to state schools that “support” boycotts (which can simply mean paying the travel costs of a faculty member to attend a conference of one of the above-mentioned associations). The intent is clearly aimed at stopping other groups from supporting the boycott. In addition to holding that boycotts are protected speech, the Supreme Court has also ruled that denial of funding in order to suppress speech is unconstitutional.
U.S. House of Representatives H.R. 4009, introduced by Representatives Roskam (R-IL) and Lipinski (D-IL), would seriously undermine the right to support a lawful boycott. Cynically titled the “Protect Academic Freedom Act,” H.R. 4009 would accomplish just the opposite. The bill attempts to prevent student or faculty groups from supporting lawful boycotts of Israeli institutions by stripping funding from the institution of higher education with which they are associated. The bill is clearly intended to silence speech with which the co-sponsors of the bill disagree.
Florida A bill denouncing academic boycotts of Israel as “biased and hypocritical”, but not calling for specific punitive measures, SR 894, introduced by State Senator Eleanor Sobel passed out of committee and could be voted on by the full Senate at any time.
Illinois UPDATE: Advocacy efforts forced State Senator Ira Silverstein to back down from his original bill that would have cut state funding from institutions that ‘support’ the boycott (SB3017). Instead, he introduced a foolish resolution that condemns all academic boycotts (see DDF action alert here). All the advocacy paid off, and the resolution was defeated in committee on April 1, 2014! See more here.
Maryland UPDATE: The original bill, which would have cut funding by 3% to state schools that “support” the boycott was amended and striped of punitive measures thanks to public outcry and a statewide coalition opposing the bill. Because of the outcry, the bill didn’t make it out of committee, however, its sponsor sought to amend a watered-down version of the bill to the state’s budget bill. Continued opposition from Defending Dissent Foundation, Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, Jewish Voice for Peace, Peace Action and many others, as well as a letter from Archbishop Desmond Tutu (a leader in the anti-apartied movement) forced legislators to make the amendment even weaker, and to add a clause stating that “official state control of intellectual inquiry and activity is a mark of authoritarian societies and is strongly disfavored in a pluralistic democratic culture.” We’re calling this one a victory, if not total victory.
New York New York was the first state legislature to consider a bill against boycotts. That bill would have cut off state funding to any institution of higher education that supports a boycott of Israeli institutions (meaning, for example, paying travel expenses for a faculty member to attend a professional association that has joined the boycott). Although that bill passed the state senate overwhelmingly, it was withdrawn due to public outcry, including a New York Times editorial against the bill in the New York Times. However, the bill’s sponsor has re-written the bill, reducing the punishment for involvement with a group that supports the boycott to denying reimbursement for expenses (read the new version here). It’s still intended to suppress free speech. Send a message to your state legislators here. Additional articles on the New York bill here and here.
Pennsylvania A resolution condemning the ASA boycott, HR 627 (introduced by Rep. Mike Turzai) passed the House on March 12, 2014 An identical resolution, SR 279 (introduced by State Senator Anthony H. Williams), in the Senate has not moved.
South Carolina: a non-binding resolution condemning the ASA boycott passed the South Carolina House on February 18, 2014