Two federal lawsuits have been filed in Texas this week challenging a state law that requires government contractors to sign an oath that they will not engage in boycotts of Israel.
The Texas lawsuits come after a suit was filed last week in federal court by the ACLU of Arkansas on behalf of Arkansas Times Limited Partnership, the company that owns and publishes the Arkansas Times, arguing that a similar state law violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
At least 26 states have recently passed such laws, intending to target the BDS (“boycott, divestment, and sanctions”) movement that aims to put economic pressure on Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. Similar bills are pending in 13 other states.
The Texas law prohibits all state agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel, and requires such contractors to sign a pledge that states that they “[do] not currently boycott Israel; and will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract.”
The ACLU of Texas filed its lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of four Texans, arguing that the law “forces them to choose between their livelihoods and their First Amendment rights.” A similar lawsuit was filed Monday by an Austin children’s speech pathologist, who was told she can no longer work in the public school district because she declined to sign the oath.
The plaintiffs in the ACLU of Texas lawsuit are a freelance writer, artist, interpreter and translator who lost contracts with the University of Houston; a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University, who was forced to forfeit payment for judging at a public school debate tournament; a Palestinian-American college student at Texas State
University who has had to forego opportunities to judge high school debate
tournaments; and a reporter for KETR, an NPR affiliate owned and operated by Texas A&M University-Commerce, who was forced to sign the oath against his conscience in order to keep his job.
The Intercept did a big profile on the plaintiff in the other Texas lawsuit, the elementary school speech pathologist Bahia Amawi, who lost her job for refusing to sign the oath:
A CHILDREN’S SPEECH PATHOLOGIST who has worked for the last nine years with developmentally disabled, autistic, and speech-impaired elementary school students in Austin, Texas, has been told that she can no longer work with the public school district, after she refused to sign an oath vowing that she “does not” and “will not” engage in a boycott of Israel or “otherwise tak[e] any action that is intended to inflict economic harm” on that foreign nation. …
The child language specialist, Bahia Amawi, is a U.S. citizen who received a master’s degree in speech pathology in 1999 and, since then, has specialized in evaluations for young children with language difficulties (see video below). Amawi was born in Austria and has lived in the U.S. for the last 30 years, fluently speaks three languages (English, German, and Arabic), and has four U.S.-born American children of her own.
Amawi began working in 2009 on a contract basis with the Pflugerville Independent School District, which includes Austin, to provide assessments and support for school children from the county’s growing Arabic-speaking immigrant community. The children with whom she has worked span the ages of 3 to 11. Ever since her work for the school district began in 2009, her contract was renewed each year with no controversy or problem.
Amawi concluded that she could not truthfully or in good faith sign the oath because, in conjunction with her family, she has made the household decision to refrain from purchasing goods from Israeli companies in support of the global boycott to end Israel’s decadeslong occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
Amawi, as the mother of four young children and a professional speech pathologist, is not a leader of any political movements: She has simply made the consumer choice to support the boycott by avoiding the purchase of products from Israeli companies in Israel or the occupied West Bank. She also occasionally participates in peaceful activism in defense of Palestinian self-determination that includes advocacy of the global boycott to end the Israeli occupation.
The loss of Amawi is a loss to the school district, the Intercept reports:
Because Amawi, to her knowledge, is the only certified Arabic-speaking child’s speech pathologist in the district, it is quite possible that the refusal to renew her contract will leave dozens of young children with speech pathologies without any competent expert to evaluate their conditions and treatment needs.
“I got my master’s in this field and devoted myself to this work because I always wanted to do service for children,” Amawi said. “It’s vital that early-age assessments of possible speech impairments or psychological conditions be administered by those who understand the child’s first language.”
In other words, Texas’s Israel loyalty oath requirement victimizes not just Amawi, an American who is barred from working in the professional field to which she has devoted her adult life, but also the young children in need of her expertise and experience that she has spent years developing.
From a New York Times story on the case:
“The policy preferences of a foreign country are taking precedence over the needs of Bahia’s students, who have benefited from her knowledge and her fluency in multiple languages,” said Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations who is representing Ms. Amawi.
“Bahia’s decision to buy this kind of hummus and not that kind of hummus is her decision,” he added, “and the Constitution protects it.”
And more from the Intercept on the sweeping language of the Texas bill:
The bill’s language is so sweeping that some victims of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Southwest Texas in late 2017, were told that they could only receive state disaster relief if they first signed a pledge never to boycott Israel. That demand was deeply confusing to those hurricane victims in desperate need of help but who could not understand what their views of Israel and Palestine had to do with their ability to receive assistance from their state government.
In Arkansas, Act 710 of 2017, co-sponsored by state Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) and Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs), took effect July 31, 2017. It requires that government contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel or reduce their fees by at least 20 percent.
The Arkansas Times initiated its lawsuit after the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College, which has advertised regularly in the Times and its sister publications, informed the Times that it had to sign a certification that it would not engage in a boycott of Israel if it wanted to continue to receive advertising contracts from the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees on behalf of UAPTC. The university imposed this condition because Act 710 requires all state institutions to do so. Times publisher Alan Leveritt declined, and UAPTC has refused to advertise further with the Times. The Times has never participated in a boycott of Israel or editorialized in support of one.
From our previous report on the lawsuit:
“Campuses in the University of Arkansas system have been advertising with us for years, so we were shocked and more than a little troubled when they sent over what looked like a loyalty oath as a condition of payment,” Leveritt said. “As journalists, we are fervent believers that the First Amendment’s speech protections are essential to a free and just society and would never sign a contract that’s conditioned on the unconstitutional suppression of free speech. Regardless of what people may think about this particular boycott, it is not the government’s place to decide what causes Arkansans can or cannot support.”
The day after the lawsuit was filed, Hester told the Associated Press that the law will be modified in the coming legislative session, promising that the changes would render the lawsuit moot. He provided no details on the potential modifications.
The ACLU’s lawsuits in Arkansas and Texas are part of a national effort to push back on “anti-BDS laws” that infringe on free speech, the New York Times reports:
The A.C.L.U. does not take a public position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it has been challenging the state laws, one by one, on the basis of free speech — and with lawsuits that are very similar to Ms. Amawi’s.
In Kansas, for example, the A.C.L.U. represented another education contractor who lost work after refusing to promise that she would not participate in a boycott of Israel. The suit led to a federal injunction in January, blocking the law’s enforcement. In June, the A.C.L.U. agreed to dismiss the suit after state legislators narrowed the scope of the legislation so that it applied only to companies, not to individuals.
In Arizona, the A.C.L.U. represented a lawyer who had a state contract to work with incarcerated people, and who did not want his purchases to support companies linked to Israel. In September, a federal court blocked the enforcement of that state’s law, too.