– By Mark Hage, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine
Texas Court Victory for Free Speech in the U.S. & the Palestinian BDS Movement
A Federal Court in Texas handed down an important ruling Thursday, April 26, preliminarily blocking enforcement of a Texas law banning contractors from boycotting Israel. The court declared that “plaintiffs’ BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions’] boycotts are speech protected by the First Amendment.”
The decision follows two others like it by federal courts in Kansas and Arizona.
The case was brought by Bahia Amawi, an elementary school speech pathologist in Austin, Texas, whose employment contract was not renewed because she refused to sign an oath certifying that she does not participate in boycotts of Israel.
The Texas State Legislature passed and Governor Greg Abbott signed H.B. 89, the anti-boycott bill, in 2017, with Abbott declaring: “Any anti-Israel policy is an anti-Texas policy.”
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman took stock of Abbot’s statement and the pro-Israel mentality of the Texas State Legislature – only five legislators had voted against H.B. 89:
“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” W. Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943). “[T]he purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular[,]” is “to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation—and their ideas from suppression—at the hands of an intolerant society.” McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n, 514 U.S. 334, 357 (1995).”
Pitman also rejected Texas’s argument that H.B. 89 was necessary to fight anti-Semitism and discrimination against Israelis:
“The statute’s plain text makes its purpose obvious: to prevent expressive conduct critical of the nation of Israel, not discriminatory conduct on the basis of Israeli national origin. Texas points to no authority indicating that such a purpose is a legitimate or compelling aim of government justifying the restriction of First Amendment freedoms.”
While the original lawsuit challenging the Texas statute was brought on behalf of Amawi by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the ACLU later joined the lawsuit on behalf of John Pluecker, whose academic contract with the University of Houston was non-renewed because he refused to sign the anti-boycott oath, and in defense of George Hale, who signed the oath under pressure to keep his job at an NPR-affiliated station licensed to Texas A&M. Hale’s employer even refused to allow him to add a statement to the oath expressing his personal opposition to it.
The number of anti-boycott laws that represent a direct threat to the free speech rights of U.S. citizens while shielding Israel from legitimate protest have significantly increased in recent years. 25 states to date have passed laws or issued executive orders restricting boycotts of Israel, including New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “If you boycott Israel, New York State will boycott you.”
As we struggle for the liberation of Palestine from military occupation, apartheid, and settler-colonialism, we must be politically vigilant at home to protect against any anti-boycott legislation or executive decree coming to pass in Vermont.
Why We Protest: Three Voices from the Great March of Return in Gaza
Shireen, 20, from al-Shujaiya
When I go to the protests, I express the anger inside me. We are a nation under siege in a very small area of 360 square kilometers, like a big prison. One of the worst things I’ve seen was when my sister was injured by a bullet. I did not know what had happened, only that she was bleeding a lot.
The women are the biggest part of the grassroots movement. Our participation means that our strength as a nation comes from both genders.
I did not face any difficulties or criticism from anybody. On the contrary, we found great support from men, families and friends for our participation as women.
With the Great March of Return, the world has become aware that there is a nation demanding its rights and that we will not stay silent. The world should support us. I want to live in a developed, free society, which has no occupation, killing or destruction. We are looking for freedom and we will seize it.
Husam, 25, from Khan Younis
Last Friday, when I had the Palestinian flag painted on my face, I was hit by a gas canister directly in my back. I was badly injured and transferred to a hospital. I’m now being treated at home. I wish to recover so I can go [back to the protests] next Friday.
Despite the killings and the injuries, I am still going. I think I will keep participating even if it lasts for nine years, not just nine months. One of the worst things I’ve seen was one of the Fridays during which about 60 people were killed, when they [soldiers] were killing youth randomly and shooting towards heads and legs. It was a horrific day. I felt like I was in a nightmare.
It was so hard when I could not save one of my comrades who was bleeding on the ground after being injured by an Israeli sniper, and then he died. I can’t understand how they can kill unarmed people.
Ahmad, 24, from Gaza City
I am a young person who is looking for stability, but the occupation has killed all of my dreams and ambitions. It is an occupation of the mind. The challenge in my life is finding a job or any opportunity. We join the demonstrations because this is our land and to demand our rights.
But we are making progress through our resistance and our commitment to continue the peaceful, popular struggle. Many of my friends were martyred. I will keep on the path of my comrades, although everything is very difficult here in Gaza.