The right to boycott, a core form of First Amendment protected political speech, is under attack in America today. States across the union, along with the US Congress, have considered bills meant to penalize those who engage in boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) for Palestinian human rights. A number of states have even passed anti-boycott bills.
As a civil liberties organization, we take no position on international issues or BDS, but boycotts are a time honored form of nonviolent activism. And as the Supreme Court has clearly stated, boycotts for political, economic, and social change–like those aimed at changing Israeli policy towards the Palestinians–are political speech. Defending Rights & Dissent have vigorously opposed these bills.
Recently, the town of Dickinson, Texas made news when it was revealed that applicants for Hurricane Harvey relief aid had to certify they would not boycott Israel. This is not only shockingly inhumane, it is flagrantly unconstitutional. Defending Rights & Dissent Vice President Emily Berman, who is also a professor of constitutional law at the University of Houston Law Center, and our policy and legislative counsel Chip Gibbons sent a letter to the mayor outlining our concerns.
Groups who supported and even one of the sponsors of the Texas anti-boycott bill Dickinson cited as justification have rushed to say that what happened in Dickinson is a misapplication of the law. Misapplication or not, no one should be surprised by the result. This is the direct result of state campaigns to demonize and penalize supporters of BDS. Update: Dickinson has announced it is no longer applying the anti-boycott provision to homeowners, but it is continuing to apply it to contractors. While a step in the right direction, this is still unconstitutional.
With widespread outrage at the impact of these anti-boycott bills, we were shocked that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan decided to issue an executive order barring business entities who boycott Israel from receiving state contracts. What makes this even more shocking is that on three occasions grassroots coalitions, of which Defending Rights & Dissent were a part, have defeated proposed anti-boycott legislation in the Maryland General Assembly. On one occasion, the outcry against anti-boycott legislation was so great the intended sponsor opted not to even file a bill.
Defending Rights & Dissent initiated a letter to Gov. Hogan outlining how his executive order was unconstitutional and calling on him to rescind it. We were joined in sending this letter by an array of national and local civil liberties groups, including Palestine legal, the DC and Maryland chapters of the National Lawyers Guild, and Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition.