New York bill to punish ASA over Israel boycott picks up 48 supporters

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A New York bill to cut off state funding to the American Studies Association over its Israel boycott has the support of 48 lawmakers.  That means that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who authored the bill, is just 28 members short of garnering a majority of the state assembly to back the legislation targeting the ASA.

The legislation would prohibit colleges from giving funds to the ASA or other academic groups that have supported a boycott of universities in countries that host schools given credentials by New York state. If the bill passes, colleges would not be eligible for state aid during the academic year if they violate the legislation.  Practically, it would mean that university funds given to students and faculty to travel to ASA events would be cut off.

While the word “Israel” is not mentioned in the bill, New York’s Regents board has certified institutions located in Israel, Lebanon, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Silver has made clear that he introduced the bill because of the ASA boycott of Israel.

“Actions such as the American Studies Association’s discriminatory boycott of Israel and its academic institutions are a blatant assault on the academic freedoms that New York and its students have come to hold dear,” Silver said in statement announcing the bill.

The measure has been referred to the Higher Education Committee of the New York State Assembly.  The chair of the committee, Deborah Glick, is a co-sponsor of the bill. Glick’s and Silver’s office have not returned phone calls I made to garner more information about the legislation.

The legislation was criticized as unconstitutional by Dima Khalidi,  Director of the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support group and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights.  In an e-mail to me, Khalidi explained:

Boycotts for the purpose of effecting social, political or economic change are considered by the United States Supreme Court to be speech activities protected by the First Amendment.

The First Amendment also prohibits public officials from denying public benefits as a way of censoring speech activities. These bills clearly aim to discourage expressive activities such as boycotts based on the legislators’ personal disagreement with the content of the expression.

Painting the ASA boycott resolution as discriminatory is not only inaccurate, but also distracts from the fact that its purpose is in fact to protest the human rights violations for which Israel is responsible, and the discriminatory policies and practices of the Israeli government. These bills would be both a violation of free speech and of academic freedom, which the proposed legislation cynically purports to defend.

The New York Assembly is the first legislative body to consider punitive measures aimed at the ASA in the aftermath of its decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions over their complicity with the occupation and human rights abuses.  At the federal level, a letter blasting the ASA boycott has picked up at least 134 members’ support, according to the Jerusalem Post.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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