A St. Louis federal appeals panel will hear an important free-speech case Wednesday involving the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, which opposes Israel’s military occupation and settlements policies in Palestinian territories. The movement is so controversial that 27 state legislatures have passed laws to discourage or punish businesses and citizens, including applicants for state jobs, who honor the boycott.
The issue before the court isn’t Israel’s policies. It’s about protecting Americans’ First Amendment rights. Protest movements rarely arise without sparking significant controversy, as the 1955-1956 Birmingham bus boycott and anti-apartheid international boycott of South Africa so amply demonstrated. Americans’ free speech rights, which include the right to protest collectively, are among the most cherished pillars of our democracy. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals must not allow those rights to be chipped away.
This is a case near and dear to many journalists’ hearts because it involves a small weekly Arkansas newspaper’s courageous decision to stand up for the First Amendment and refuse to be coerced after the Arkansas Legislature passed a 2017 law to punish participants in the Israel boycott. State authorities said the newspaper would have to sign a statement rejecting the boycott if the publication wanted to continue receiving advertising revenue from state agencies, including state universities.
Arkansas Times Editor Alan Leveritt could have signed it and moved on, knowing that Israel wasn’t a major editorial focus of the newspaper. But, “as journalists, citizens and taxpayers, we dispute the right of the state to impose any ideological litmus test on a publisher or other business,” Leveritt wrote on the website of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting this case on his behalf.
Then-State Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, felt so strongly about a proposed anti-boycott bill before the Missouri Legislature in 2018 that he filibustered, effectively blocking it from moving forward.
Nationally, 2,000 rabbis and cantors belonging to the T’ruah human rights group are supporting Leveritt’s court challenge, as is J Street, the Washington-based liberal Jewish advocacy organization. The two groups are quick to condemn increasingly pervasive anti-Semitic rhetoric among boycott supporters that too often equates all things Israel and Jewish with the oppression of Palestinian rights.
But consumer boycotts, the two groups argue in a joint amicus brief, “are forms of collective action that powerfully communicate political messages” that pressured for “the dismantlement of Jim Crow, and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.”
Legislative- and court-sanctioned censorship of the boycott movement would put all forms of collective activism in danger, including boycotts organized by gun-rights advocates after major retailers, including Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, announced restrictions on gun sales.
“As an American, I say it is none of their damn business what political beliefs we hold,” Leveritt wrote of the Arkansas state authorities imposing their will on his newspaper. “We’ll see them in court.”