Wichita teacher sues Kansas for denying her work because she boycotts Israel

US Politics
on 22 Comments

Yesterday the ACLU posted an electrifying piece by Esther Koontz, a curriculum coach in the Wichita public schools: “Kansas won’t let me train math teachers because I boycott Israel.”

A day earlier, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Kansas commissioner of education on behalf of Koontz– saying that a new Kansas law requiring all state contractors to certify that they aren’t boycotting Israel violates the First Amendment because it imposes an “ideological litmus test” on beliefs and associations.

Koontz is a Middle American if ever there was one. She is married to a Mennonite pastor. She decided to boycott Israel after teachings at her church. She taught math for many years.

Last spring she was chosen to participate in a state program that trains public school math teachers all over Kansas. But in June Kansas passed its law against contracts with boycotters of Israel. She writes:

That law affects me personally. As a member of the Mennonite Church USA, and a person concerned with the human rights of all people — and specifically the ongoing violations of Palestinians’ human rights in Israel and Palestine — I choose to boycott consumer goods made by Israeli and international companies that profit from the violation of Palestinians’ rights.

The law went into effect in July, and the state sent Koontz a certification form to affirm that she does not boycott Israel.

I was stunned. It seems preposterous that my decision to participate in a political boycott should have any effect on my ability to work for the state of Kansas.

After waiting for several weeks and considering my options, I emailed back and told the official I could not sign the certificate as a matter of conscience.  Could I still participate in the state’s training program? She responded that, unfortunately, I could not.

Koontz also says in the piece that she endorsed BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions, last fall during a church teaching that convinced her that BDS “could help bring about an end to the Israeli government’s occupation, in the same way those tactics helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa.”

Meantime, ACLU staff attorney Brian Hauss, who sued on Koontz’s behalf, wrote a piece for Haaretz affirming the right to boycott. He also cited South Africa.

From the Boston Tea Party to the Montgomery bus boycott to the campaign to divest from businesses operating in apartheid South Africa, political boycotts have been a proud part of this country’s constitutional tradition.

I don’t understand why this isn’t in the New York Times!

Here are some excerpts from Hauss’s lawsuit, filed two days ago in federal court in Kansas. The Kansas law barring contracts with boycott supporters was aimed at free speech about Palestinian conditions and Israeli actions:

The Act’s legislative history indicates that one of its principal objectives is to suppress participation in boycott campaigns aimed at Israel, particularly Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (“BDS”) campaigns, which seek to apply economic pressure on Israel to protest the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel…

In the House Budget Committee hearing, Representative Powell “explained his support for the legislation” by “emphasiz[ing] the unique relationship between the United States and Israel, and Israel’s standing as one of the few democracies in the Middle East.”

Proponent Margie Robinow testified that, “[w]ithout a stance against BDS, the hearts and minds are lost for the next generation, along with the economic impact.”

The suit tells us of Koontz’s close association with the Mennonite Church, and her path to boycott:

Ms. Koontz is a member of the Mennonite Church USA. Her husband has been a Mennonite pastor from 2006 to 2011, and from 2013 to the present. They have three children and have been members of the First Mennonite Church, Hutchinson, for four years.

In the fall of 2016, a member of Ms. Koontz’s congregation made a series of presentations about his recent tour of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Over the course of eight sessions, Ms. Koontz and members of her congregation watched video presentations from non-governmental organizations, children’s rights advocates, former soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, and others about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

At the conclusion of the series, the presenter asked the gathered congregation members to consider boycott, divestment, and sanctions activity. Ms. Koontz left the meeting with the conviction that she needed to do her part to support the Palestinians’ struggle for equality. She came to the conclusion that her economic decisions should reflect her values, even if that simply meant refusing to buy certain consumer products…

Accepting the calls from her church, “Ms. Koontz is engaged in a boycott of consumer goods and services offered by Israeli companies and international companies operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Ms. Koontz does not limit her boycott to products produced by companies operating in the settlements because she believes that the Israeli economy as a whole profits from the occupation and because she also wants to protest the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian citizens living in Israel.

And by the way it’s about the U.S. too:

Through her boycott participation, Ms. Koontz seeks to protest the Israeli government’s actions, as well as the U.S. government’s support for those actions

The ACLU says the law that went into effect in July violates the First Amendment because it “imposes an ideological litmus test and compels speech related to state contractors’ protected political beliefs and associations.”

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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22 Responses

  1. JeffB
    October 13, 2017, 4:02 pm

    @Phil

    It’s not in the NYTimes because it is a fundraising gimmick for the ACLU. Her version of events is unlikely, I’d say the most likely outcome is she loses on standing. No exciting 1st amendment debate at all.

    Here is the problem with the case in brief. She claims she was going to hired as a “contractor”. “any individual or company seeking a contract with the state ” . So first off contract as what. Does she mean she was going to be a W2 temporary employee? They why would they be applying a business document that they ask of companies? If they do that’s a procedural error on that part of that agency. The next possibility would be a 1099 an individual without an underlying but that’s very unlikely for a state agency. And while I’ve never done business with Kansas I suspect illegal.

    So probably there is some LLC call it Ester Koontz LLC this paperwork was directed at. Ester Koontz LLC may pass money through to Ester Koontz but it is not Ester Koontz. The LLC doesn’t boycott Israel, the managing director does in her personal life. So all that happened is the managing director of an LLC she refused to sign a document indicating that her LLC does not discriminate on the basis of national origin. Most likely she didn’t understand the document (most Americans don’t understand the distinction between these various corporate classification, it doesn’t come up if you aren’t doing anything complex).

    Her lawsuit is based on the state having offered her a contract, and I suspect that Kansas is going to argue she was never offered a contract at all. No exciting first amendment case. No big showdown on BDS. Nothing of the sort. And even if they did offer her a contract Kansas is going to rightfully just argue the means of redress is to fix the procedural error.

    That’s why there is no coverage. We just have a school teacher who just doesn’t understand tax law and the ACLU grabbing some headlines for fundraising on a case I suspect they know will blow up. But it will blow up harmlessly while they wait for a much better case.

    There are other possibilities of course. But this is a not a good case.

    And before I get posts below about first amendment stuff. Read what I wrote. There are no first Amendment issues unless you want to agree with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores that corporations are entitled to religious opinions. And before you go there think through what that means for just about every anti-discrimination and anti-corruption rule affecting government contractors.

    • JWalters
      October 13, 2017, 8:21 pm

      The law pertains to “any individual or company seeking a contract with the state”.

      JeffB then opines that for Kansas to treat her as a “W2 temporary employee” would be a procedural error and scuttle the lawsuit. Or, for Kansas to treat her as a 1099 individual contracter would be “very unlikely for a state agency”, and he suspects “illegal” (despite never having done business with Kansas). This too would allegedly scuttle the lawsuit. Thus, there is no way for Kansas to hire her as an individual contractor and apply this law, according to JeffB’s suspicions and estimates of what is likely and unlikely.

      Despite the fact that the Kansas contracting agency sent Koontz the Israeli loyalty pledge for her signature, JeffB is sure they didn’t know what they were doing. JeffB goes on:

      “Her lawsuit is based on the state having offered her a contract, and I suspect that Kansas is going to argue she was never offered a contract at all.”

      In fact, despite her being selected to participate in the program, she was not offered a contract because she refused to sign the Israeli loyalty pledge. Further, the law refers to any individual “seeking” a contract, which means before a contract is offered.

      I look forward to JeffB, with his tangled BS, as the lawyer defending Israeli criminals on trial in Nuremburg.
      “Opening Address of Robert Jackson at Nuremberg Trials”
      http://wwwthesixthestate.blogspot.com/2007/10/opening-address-of-robert-jackson-at.html

      For new readers, JeffB thoroughly shredded his credibility, unable to deal honestly with facts or logic, in the extended discussion here:
      http://mondoweiss.net/2015/05/times-rudoren-selma

    • Misterioso
      October 14, 2017, 9:07 am

      Mr. Bafflegab has once again spewed forth and accomplished nothing.
      Perhaps he gets paid by the word.

      • Mooser
        October 14, 2017, 12:57 pm

        “Perhaps he gets paid by the word.”

        And gets a double-bonus for “@ Phil”.

  2. Liz
    October 13, 2017, 5:45 pm

    Public schools are no joke. They are corporations designed to silence teachers.

    • pabelmont
      October 14, 2017, 1:20 pm

      To silence teachers? Well, perhaps, but more particularly, to en-dumb-ify students. Wealthy folks send their kids to expensive schools not merely to spend money (or be seen spending money) but to get for those kids a decent education.

      Of course, some public schools are OK and some are terrific. No system is perfect.

  3. Emory Riddle
    October 13, 2017, 6:00 pm

    “Her version of events is unlikely”.

    Really? What about her version strikes you as unlikely?

    The law did not go into effect in July? That’s pretty easy to check.

    Or the state did not send Koontz a certification form to affirm that she does not boycott Israel? How else would they monitor this to enforce the law?

    Or she really was not denied the chance to go to the training for the job? She refused to affirm that she does not boycott Israel — but they hired her anyway?

    What is wrong with you JeffB?

    • JeffB
      October 13, 2017, 7:02 pm

      @Emory

      Or the state did not send Koontz a certification form to affirm that she does not boycott Israel?

      As I wrote in the long comment that’s the part that I find unlikely. They likely asked her to certify the company which was going to be contracting does not boycott Israel. Or if they did ask her this question then there is a procedural error on the part of this agency. Or it wasn’t an agency. Or any number of possibilities but Koontz’s story doesn’t seem likely.

      What is wrong with you JeffB?

      What’s wrong with me is I don’t believe Esther Koontz’s version of events. I do not believe that Esther Koontz was ever offered a job or contract by the state of Kansas. Her story smells extremely implausible. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think she’s lying but I do think she’s misunderstanding. Her story does sound authentic to a teacher not really getting all the tax / legal implications that are going on and describing what she perceives to have happened. But that’s different then saying that’s what happened. Her I get. The ACLU on the other hand? They know better.

      Critical details are missing that those present don’t make sense. Basic stuff like whether she was W2ing or 1099ing? Are we talking amounts over or below the thresholds ($400-1200)? What’s she’s describing is behavioral control (they are sending her to training class to tell her what to do) and financial control (she can’t take a loss). Why would a state agency be hiring her as an independent contractor under those conditions?

      I could imagine something like this was a contractor to a state agency that was W2ing her as a temporary employee but also offered 1099 and had unified paperwork (stupid and legally dangerous but not uncommon for hiring subcontractors). Then I can believe the events. I can believe she woudn’t have caught the wrapping. I can’t believe ACLU wouldn’t have caught her being wrapped. But if she’s wrapped Kansas ain’t the one that broke the law here.

      So we are going to spend a year fishing till we actually see some detailed filings.

      • Marnie
        October 14, 2017, 6:40 am

        “What’s wrong with me is I don’t believe Esther Koontz’s version of events. I do not believe that Esther Koontz was ever offered a job or contract by the state of Kansas. Her story smells extremely implausible. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think she’s lying but I do think she’s misunderstanding.”

        Mansplaining, zionizing and straight up baloney Jeffy. I can’t even begin to describe what anything you write smells like – there aren’t enough words, although I used to have to bus through an industrial area in St. Paul that held the combined heady aromas of a slaughterhouse and a bleach factory, resulting in headaches for the first couple hours of each work day. That’s pretty darn close.

        You wisely or like a chickenshit chose not to tango any further with JWalters above, instead choosing a new dance partner. You are a coward, a fraud, an obnoxious jerk off all trades, master of none. In your own words describing someone else, “you have the ability to control yourself but enjoy losing yourself in strings of badly thought out emoting” and another jewel “I’m a strong anti-racist. I’d like the Palestinians to be full Israelis as you know. They are welcome to be part of the state of Israel. They are not welcome to create an Arab Muslim state in its place. That’s not racism.” That’s you all over.

        WTF is a ‘strong’ antiracist JeffBee. You’re either antiracist or a racist. There are no ‘degrees’ of antiracism really, are there? Just something you made up to make nothing sound like something? Like ‘liberal’ zionist?

      • Emory Riddle
        October 14, 2017, 12:00 pm

        “Basic stuff like whether she was W2ing or 1099ing? Are we talking amounts over or below the thresholds ($400-1200)?”

        What in God’s name does any of that have to do with her story? She did not tell us how her income was going to be reported for tax purposes — ergo her whole story is bogus?

        I must be getting old. My tolerance for this nonsense is waning.

  4. JosephA
    October 13, 2017, 9:35 pm

    These types of ridiculously unconstitutional laws need to be litigated in a court of law. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” for these types of hasbara vermin trolls.

  5. Dan Walsh
    October 14, 2017, 3:43 am

    @ JeffB

    “It’s not in the NYTimes because it is a fundraising gimmick for the ACLU. Her version of events is unlikely, I’d say the most likely outcome is she loses on standing. No exciting 1st amendment debate at all.”

    I disagree on all your points.

    You say Ms. Koontz’s version of events is unlikely…according to whom, exactly, other than yourself?

    Irrespective of how this case actually plays out, I believe it to be one of major Constitutional proportions. Here’s why: Even if it is dismissed, it will not be the last case to emerge from Zionism’s ill-advised political efforts to delegitimate BDS through legislation (lawfare). Courts can see through that and they know when they are being played. If you are correct and Ms. Koontz is denied standing other cases will emerge because the question of whether or not states can violate/ignore/erase the right to boycott – a right the SCOTUS has spoken to specifically and upheld – is not going to just go away.

    Zionism’s recent record in US courts is underwhelming, consider Zivotofsky vs. Clinton:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zivotofsky_v._Clinton

    Zionism tends to do better in the political and media realms…not so much in the courts where the rights and privileges of ordinary Americans must be respected.

    Zionism was ill advised to pursue these anti-BDS laws in the face of settled judicial precedent on the American right-to-boycott: a Zionist “victory” here is hard to imagine and a defeat would have negative, wide-ranging and long term impacts on its efforts to put the BDS genie back in the Hasbara Bottle.

    It is also worth noting that historically Zionism has used boycotts/embargoes/trade barriers whenever it served its purposes. Two salient examples are the Zionist boycotts of Arab labor and businesses in the 1930’s during the early days of colonization in Palestine and more recently in the 1980’s when American Zionism called on the US to deny Most Favored Nation (MFN) status to the USSR over the issue of Jewish emigration to Israel (Jackson-Vanik).

    It would appear that Zionism opposes boycotts except when it doesn’t.

    JeffB…please point out all my errors. Thank you.

    Zionist “No Trade No Aid” poster:

    http://www.palestineposterproject.org/poster/no-trade-no-aid-till-soviet-jews-are-free

    300 historic Palestine posters on boycotts/divestment/sanctions:

    http://www.palestineposterproject.org/special-collection/bdsboycotts

  6. JLewisDickerson
    October 14, 2017, 6:12 am

    It is difficult to imagine a case having better factual circumstances for use in challenging an anti-BDS law like this one in Kansas (i.e., requiring all state contractors to certify that they aren’t boycotting Israel). The case also has great potential for generating favorable press coverage.

    P.S. In case you have any interest:
    ■ CONSTRUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT: RONALD REAGAN‟S PROBLEMATIC POLICY
    OF APPEASEMENT WITH SOUTH AFRICA [100+ page PDF] – https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/557645/Hipp_georgetown_0076M_11569.pdf;sequence=1

    • Marnie
      October 14, 2017, 11:09 am

      @Dan Walsh

      “This is a Hebrew watermelon!” and “Every watermelon and melon from a Hebrew farm!” Yes, but do these melons keep Shabbat?

    • JLewisDickerson
      October 15, 2017, 4:38 pm

      RE: “Wichita teacher sues Kansas for denying her work because she boycotts Israel”

      “What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America”
      Hardcover – June 1, 2004
      by Thomas Frank (Author)
      LINK➤ https://www.amazon.com/Whats-Matter-Kansas-Conservatives-America/dp/0805073396

      One of “our most insightful social observers”* cracks the great political mystery of our time: how conservatism, once a marker of class privilege, became the creed of millions of ordinary Americans

      With his acclaimed wit and acuity, Thomas Frank turns his eye on what he calls the “thirty-year backlash”—the populist revolt against a supposedly liberal establishment. The high point of that backlash is the Republican Party’s success in building the most unnatural of alliances: between blue-collar Midwesterners and Wall Street business interests, workers and bosses, populists and right-wingers.

      In asking “what ’s the matter with Kansas?”—how a place famous for its radicalism became one of the most conservative states in the union—Frank, a native Kansan and onetime Republican, seeks to answer some broader American riddles: Why do so many of us vote against our economic interests? Where’s the outrage at corporate manipulators? And whatever happened to middle-American progressivism? The questions are urgent as well as provocative. Frank answers them by examining pop conservatism—the bestsellers, the radio talk shows, the vicious political combat—and showing how our long culture wars have left us with an electorate far more concerned with their leaders’ “values” and down-home qualities than with their stands on hard questions of policy.

      A brilliant analysis—and funny to boot—What’s the Matter with Kansas? presents a critical assessment of who we are, while telling a remarkable story of how a group of frat boys, lawyers, and CEOs came to convince a nation that they spoke on behalf of the People.

      *Los Angeles Times

  7. Tom Suarez
    October 14, 2017, 8:19 am

    For anyone interested, here’s Kansas’ web page with the form as a .doc file.
    https://admin.ks.gov/offices/procurement-and-contracts/procurement-forms

    • JeffB
      October 14, 2017, 9:56 am

      @Tom

      Thanks that is very helpful. That form as written is illegal unless elsewhere Kansas prohibits contracting non-corporate entities and everything I’m seeing on the website seems to indicate the opposite. Looks to me like they are going to need to change the form for sure. But I don’t see why they need to change the law.

    • jd65
      October 14, 2017, 7:23 pm

      Kansas Dept. of Administration: “Excellent customer service, every time!” And who is their customer? Why, Israel, of course! And you know what they say? The customer is always right. Thank you Mr Suarez…

  8. MHughes976
    October 14, 2017, 11:39 am

    Ms. Koontz is certainly being disadvantaged for being involved in a boycott, which is a way of discouraging her free expression, which on the whole is morally undesirable., being a way of making people who are doing nothing illegal suffer for their dissent from the majority or official view. I suppose the argument is going to develop over the idea that she is being counter-boycotted by a public authority with its own rights of free expression. I hope that this argument doesn’t work because any idea of a right to speak, modelled on the rights of individuals, attributed to the group or collective amounts to a right to limit by intimidation the rights of individuals from which our reflections started, thus threatening to render our ideas inconsistent.

  9. pabelmont
    October 14, 2017, 1:24 pm

    If this case (or similar) makes its way to US S/C, the anti-BDS laws s/b thrown out. OTOH, if Trump and his buddies get any stronger (in US S/C), anti-BDS might be called a protection against hate-speech and OKed. Something to lose sleep over.

  10. James Canning
    October 14, 2017, 4:48 pm

    Suppressing free speech in America is an integral part of the “pro_Israel” programme in the US.

  11. HarryLaw
    October 15, 2017, 6:16 am

    That law covers Israel and all occupied territory, so any refusal to buy settlement products on the grounds that those settlements are, [in the opinion of the US government as stated by John Kerry late last year] illigitimate is a good reason not to buy. Also as the International Court of Justice found [in its opinion] by a 15 Judges to 0, including the US Judge Blumenthal] that the settlements, all of them, are in breach of the 1949 Geneva Conventions Article 49 paragraph 6. Described as grave war crime. Anyone opposing these war crimes by refusing to buy settlement products, will be severely punished by the state of Kansas. This legislation is unbelievable and will surely be overturned.

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