Last year, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the city of Dickinson, a suburb of Houston, Texas, required its residents to sign a form affirming they do not engage in a boycott of Israel as a pre-requisite to obtaining federal relief aid. The ACLU sharply criticized the requirement as unconstitutional, and the city of Dickinson eventually rescinded it for individuals, while maintaining that state agencies are blocked from contracting with, or investing in, companies that boycott Israel. Texas is one of more than 20 states that have passed anti-BDS laws, with Texas governor Greg Abbott declaring that “Anti-Israel Policies are anti-Texas policies.”
But the memo that penalizing individuals for supporting BDS is a violation of the First Amendment seems not to have reached some universities, as there are at least three known cases at the University of Houston requiring such a disavowal from its own members, as well as visiting speakers. Arizona State University has also recently made such a demand of Dr. Hatem Bazian, who was invited to speak there at an event in April by the Muslim Student Association.
The first case at the University of Houston is that of a matriculated student, a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter there. Since SJP chapters all endorse BDS, the student had to sign a contract not to boycott Israel in order to be allowed to judge a university-sponsored contest.
The second case was one of a professor at the University of Hawaii, who was invited to give a talk at the University of Houston months ago. The guest speaker purchased his ticket well ahead of time, but when it came to fill out the forms to receive reimbursement, was shocked to see the requirement that he disavow BDS. As he was unwilling to sign that form, he would have had to cover his plane ticket himself, except that his hosts eventually secured private funding for him.
The third case was of another professor, on the faculty at New York University, who was also invited to share her research at the University of Houston, and was sent the form requiring that she pledges she does not now, nor will in the future, endorse BDS. That professor declined the invitation, with a letter explaining her reasons, namely that such a political litmus test was inimical to academic freedom. With her refusal to sign the anti-BDS form, her talk was cancelled.
And at Arizona State University, the Muslim Student Association had invited Dr. Bazian, on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, to address them. Bazian too found the request to dissociate himself from BDS on the forms he was required to sign ahead of his talk on campus.
As the national discussion around “free speech,” and which speakers should be allowed to give talks on campus, heats up, it is important to keep in mind that, even in those states that have passed anti-BDS legislation, individuals still have the right to boycott Israel, and must challenge the requirement that they dissociate themselves from this movement. Some officials who are sending out this form are, at best, ignorant of its inappropriateness, and it is incumbent on us to tell them otherwise. There are many organizations willing to uphold our rights, they include Palestine Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which recently issued a statement denouncing the University of Houston anti-BDS requirement, also features numerous resources on its website.
Rahul Saksena of Palestine Legal indicated his belief that such legislation will be challenged, and ultimately struck down: “Universities have always been bastions of democracy, incubators of diverse ideas and perspectives. At a time when democracy itself is being attacked by far-right, authoritarian forces, it is troubling and shameful – not to mention unconstitutional – to see public universities implementing political litmus tests like this. These policies must be challenged legally. We are confident that courts will strike down these anti-boycott laws because they violate bedrock free speech protections. Anyone who is directly affected should contact Palestine Legal.”
Similarly, Imraan Siddiqui, Executive Director of the Council for American Islamic Relations-Arizona, told me that CAIR-Arizona, along with its local counsel, and CAIR National, are suing the Arizona State University, the Arizona Board of Regents, and the Arizona Attorney General’s office over the first amendment implications of the law.
“The speaker form, which contains the anti-BDS language from ASU, was passed onto CAIR by the Muslim Students’ Association at ASU, as they were planning to invite Dr. Bazian and American Muslims for Palestine to an event. Dr. Bazian was obviously unable to sign the agreement as a supporter of BDS, therefore we are suing since his first amendment rights have been violated,” Siddiqui explained, adding that “the anti BDS law that was passed in Arizona in 2016 is now showing up in contracts statewide, but we were shocked to find it in a university speaking agreement. This goes against the tenet that colleges and universities are beacons of free speech.”
The local Muslim Students’ Association wanted to invite a speaker to ASU.
*The university sent a contract stipulating that any speaker that comes cannot be involved in the BDS movement.
*This is a gross violation of free speech
*Therefore, we are suing.https://t.co/wWprq2lGOD pic.twitter.com/tzdZ8krRhc
— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) March 2, 2018
The ACLU is looking into the case of the SJP student at the University of Houston.
And while the University of Hawaii faculty member will go ahead with his scheduled event, we must keep in mind that private funding is not the solution to the stifling of BDS, and that private funding can also come with occasionally heavy-handed requirements. We know, for example, that a generous donor emailed the president of the University of Illinois indicating that they would stop their support should Steven Salaita be hired. An email revealed during the investigation into Salaita’s ultimate firing reads: “Having been a multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois over the years I know our support is ending as we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses. This is doubly unfortunate for the school as we have been blessed in our careers and have accumulated quite a balance sheet over my 35 year career.”
So far, every case of anti-BDS legislation has been successfully challenged. But for now, we must make it crystal clear to our representatives that BDS should not be denounced, let alone criminalized. With the Israeli lobby pushing hard to pass the Israel Anti-Boycott law, now is the time to challenge this twenty-first century McCarthyisim, in the form of anti-BDS legislation, and the imposition of a political litmus test on campuses across the country. And now is the time to remind our legislators that the right to boycott is constitutionally protected, and that we must not prioritize a foreign nation seeking to defend its apartheid system, and legitimize its illegal settlements, over the legal rights of US citizens enacting their solidarity with an oppressed people.