Bill targeting academic groups that boycott Israel halted in New York Assembly

ActivismUS Politics
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Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. (Photo: Associated Press/Mike Groll)

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. (Photo: Associated Press/Mike Groll)

There was little notice last week when the New York State Senate took up legislation to prohibit state aid from flowing to academic groups that boycott Israel.  It passed quietly–and overwhelmingly.  But when the same legislation started making its way through the New York Assembly, activists sprung into action–and have stopped it from advancing, at least for now.

Three committees in the New York Assembly did not discuss or vote on the anti-boycott legislation, a victory for the coalition of civil liberties and Palestinian rights groups that mobilized fast over the weekend to stop the legislation from passing. Activists said that Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the chair of the Higher Education Committee, announced that the anti-boycott bill was taken off the agenda for discussion yesterday. Glick also said that the legislation will be reworked, so it could come back in a different form.

“We hope that New York legislators have realized that it is inappropriate for them to deny state funds to universities in an effort to silence political speech activities that they personally disagree with. The right to engage in human rights boycotts, used to oppose segregation in the U.S. South, the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and now aimed at achieving equal rights for Palestinians, is protected by the First Amendment,” Dima Khalidi, Director of Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, said in a statement. “The threat to this right will remain until the New York bill and similar bills in other states are entirely defeated.”

The bill would cut off money to students and scholars from state institutions who need aid to travel to conventions organized by the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies, all of which have voted to boycott Israel.  Those three organizations have endorsed the boycott of Israel, and many members of the New York legislature want to cripple the ability of scholars to participate in those academic groups.

The legislation also calls for punishing any school in violation of the ban with a cut-off in state aid and prohibits departments at state schools from paying membership fees to academic groups that boycott Israel. But for now, the broad coalition that pointed out that the legislation was an attack on academic freedom has won out.

Over the weekend and yesterday, many activists called in to various Assemblymembers to express opposition to the bill.  And as the Albany Times Union‘s Casey Seiler reports, a group that is normally an ally of the powerful Assembly Speaker who authored the bill, Sheldon Silver, expressed strong opposition to it.  The New York State United Teachers union issued a statement saying that the bill “violates the principles of academic freedom, the First Amendment protection of speech and protection of association.” The Professional Staff Congress, the union for City University of New York faculty, opposed the bill, and so did groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild.

About seventy-five members of the Columbia University faculty also joined the pile-on against the bill.  And the New York Times published an editorial blasting the legislation.  “The New York bill is an ill-considered response to the American Studies Association resolution and would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent,” the Times stated.  “Academics are rightly concerned that it will impose a political test on faculty members seeking university support for research meetings and travel.”

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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