Our years long campaign to protect the right to engage in political boycotts -even against US allies- got a major boost earlier this week. Although the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act” was first introduced in March, in the last 48 hours it has spawned widespread media attention. Individuals are expressing their outrage that Democratic and Republican members of Congress have joined together to support legislation that criminalizes political expression. The bill takes aim at the movement to promote Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Already some of the bill’s cosponsors, feeling the heat, are stating that they are now reviewing the bill.
People are right to be outraged by the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. This bill would amend the Export Administration Act of 1979 to make it a crime to support boycotts fostered by international governmental organizations, such as the United Nations or European Union, against Israel, as well as, “Israeli controlled territories,” i.e. the settlements. Violators are subject to a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty o f $1 million and 20 years in prison.
These are shockingly draconian penalties for what is undeniably political speech. The Supreme Court has ruled that boycotts for political, social, and economic change are political speech and thus receive the maximum protections of the First Amendment. Yet, if passed US persons would face up to 20 years in prison for their political speech.
Defending Rights & Dissent is a domestic civil liberties group and therefore we do not take positions on BDS, but we recognize the right to boycott is a core political right. Boycotts have played a role in any number of social movements, from domestic labor and civil rights movements to international human rights campaigns. As a result, we have opposed anti-BDS bills not just at the federal level, but at the state and local level, as well.
Some have tried to frame these liberticide anti-boycott bills as a defense of US allies. The First Amendment, however, gives no immunization to US allies from criticism. The very question of who the US should ally itself with is an inherently political question, one that arouses intense passions and debate. Citizens of the US have continuously expressed dismay at their feelings that their government is betraying their values by supporting or propping up governments responsible for human rights violations. Boycotts provide a vehicle for expressing these concerns. For example, both Apartheid South Africa and Pinochet’s Chile were at some point considered allies of the US. Boycotts of these governments allowed individuals to register their dissent and helped to galvanize movements that ultimately altered US policy.
Nowhere is robust democratic debate more needed than in the realm of foreign policy.
Since the very first state level BDS was proposed in New York in 2014, we have fought tooth and nail against these measures. At a time when there were only two such bills in existence, we were testifying before the Maryland General Assembly about how boycotts are protected speech.
Since then, we’ve been a leader in the fight for the right to boycott in states across the country as these bill have emerged providing a necessary civil liberties perspective. We’ve helped forge strong grassroots coalitions and provided support to other coalitions that already existed. We have sent written testimony, held grassroots advocacy trainings, and drafted model legislation to protect the right to boycott. We’ve consistently opposed federal bills infringing on the right to boycott, including an earlier bill proffered by the sponsors of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act that sought to portray squashing free speech as removing barriers to trade.
Defending Rights & Dissent is not merely a name, it is what we do.
And so long as the right to dissent continues to be threatened by anti-boycott bills, we will continue to fight them.