Marylanders Travel Across State to Advocate for Free Speech

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On Monday February 8, 2016, as the evening session commenced for the Maryland House of Delegates, it began with Delegates making announcements and welcoming special guests. Part way through this, Del. Jill Carter asked the gathered legislators to welcome “activists from across the state […] with Freedom2Boycott.” About 35 free speech activists stood up in the gallery and waved.

Freedom2Boycott is “a coalition of groups and individuals advocating for free speech rights in the State of Maryland in support of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) that promote social justice in Israel/Palestine.” The activists had arrived in Annapolis (the capital of Maryland) from all across the free state, as part of an advocacy night that was the culmination of months of work.

“Our Lobby Night was a huge success, with Marylanders from many districts coming to the State House to show their support for free speech and the right to advocate for Palestinian rights through the time-honored practice of boycott,” Freedom2Boycott Chairwoman Alison Glick told the Dissent NewsWire.

Freedom2Boycott sprung into action upon hearing reports that an advocacy group in Maryland would be pushing for an anti-BDS bill in the upcoming legislative session and had legislative support. The bill would, much like similar bills being considered across the nation, seek to suppress dissenting views on the Middle East by denying state contracts and public investment to individuals and businesses that participate in the BDS movement. Even before the legislative session had begun Freedom2Boycott was organizing Marylanders to write to their legislators about the prospective legislation. This organizing more than paid off, as when Freedom2Boycott members visited the offices of state legislators, many times as soon as explaining they were with Freedom2Boycott they were told “we get a lot of emails from you.”

Freedom2Boycott Members Attend Lobby Night at the Maryland House of Delegates

Freedom2Boycott Members Attend Lobby Night at the Maryland House of Delegates. Photo: Jamal Najjab

One of the reasons why Maryland activists were eager to start organizing as soon as they heard an anti-BDS bill might be proposed, was that two years ago the same group that was seeking anti-BDS legislation this time had managed to successfully get an anti-BDS bill introduced. That bill sought to penalize academic associations, who had taken the political position of boycotting Israeli state institutions they believed were complicit in violating Palestinian human rights. Some of the activists involved with Freedom2Boycott had been veterans of Keep Free Speech in the Free State Coalition, of which the Defending Dissent Foundation was a member, which brought together civil liberties and Palestinian human rights groups to oppose the anti-BDS, anti-academic freedom bill then being considered. The Keep Free Speech in the Free State Coalition brought over 25 people to Annapolis to testify against the bill.

While the bill had enough co-sponsors to pass, the Keep Free Speech in the Free State Coalition was able to defeat it. After a campaign that included not just publicly testifying against the bill, but organizing supporters of free speech to write and call legislators, and send letters to the editor in local newspapers the bill was eventually defeated. Many legislators who had signed on as co-sponsors publicly announced they were now opposed to the bill and would vote against it. As a result, the bill never made it out of committee. Supporters of the anti-BDS bill were able to get language inserted into the Maryland state budget condemning the BDS movement, but given the initial overwhelming odds this was unquestionably a victory.

Freedom2Boycott is not merely just activists from the former Keep Free Speech in the Free State Coalition, it includes many new people, as well. Several people on the Freedom2Boycott advocacy night reported this was their first time attending any kind of advocacy visits with public officials.

Many of the participants were involved with Palestinian human rights advocacy. Some belonged to groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS, and others were members of churches that divested some of their funds from some businesses believed to be violating Palestinian rights. As such, they felt like the legislation was a direct attack on their rights.

Supporters of BDS oftentimes feel unfairly maligned and stigmatized – during the Maryland hearings two years ago on an anti-BDS bill, its proponents compared supporters of the BDS movement to both Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. BDS supporters feel that anti-BDS bills are partly rooted in misinformation about who they are and what they stand for. Many times such activists feel that by talking about why they personally support BDS it humanizes the movement and demonstrates to legislators that they are motivated by concerns with human rights and social justice, not anti-Semitism as opponents sometimes claim, thus countering the misinformation that makes support for anti-BDS legislation palatable amongst legislators.

BORDC/DDF is a civil liberties organization dedicated to realizing the promises of the Bill of Rights. Therefore, we do not weigh in on international issues and take no position – either for or against – BDS. Individuals who oppose BDS have just as much of a First Amendment right to express themselves freely, as those who support BDS. However, they cannot use the legislative process to suppress speech they disagree with.

As an organization dedicated to defending dissent though, we are deeply concerned with how the BDS movement has been singled out for repression across United States. As a result, we worked with Freedom2Boycott to develop factsheets for legislators about the Constitutionality of anti-BDS legislation, gave training sessions for activists on the First Amendment right to boycott, and helped draft model legislation and budget language that would affirm the right to boycott. The author of this piece also served as Chair of Freedom2Boycott’s Legislative Committee.

At this juncture no anti-BDS bill has been proposed in Maryland. The organization that was originally pushing for anti-BDS legislation has publicly announced they are no longer doing so this session. As Glick told the Dissent NewsWire, “Our message that the First Amendment must be protected resonates with residents of the Free State and it is clearly resonating with representatives. We will continue to build on this success [the advocacy day] and monitor developments in Annapolis to ensure that no last-minute attempts to sneak in an anti-BDS amendment can pass.”