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‘Complete victory for the First Amendment’: Texas judge blocks anti-BDS law

‘Complete victory for the First Amendment’: Texas judge blocks anti-BDS law
A Texas judge has blocked enforcement of a law forbidding state employees and contractors from boycotting Israel, declaring that the measure threatens to "manipulate the debate through coercion rather than persuasion."

Calling the law "an impermissible content- and viewpoint-based restriction on protected expression" that "imposes unconstitutional conditions on public employment [and] compels speech for an impermissible purpose," US District Judge Robert Pitman ruled that the "plaintiffs' BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] boycotts are inherently expressive conduct" protected under the First Amendment and delivered a temporary injunction, barring Texas from enforcing the provision. 

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Reminding the state of Texas that "the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular" is "to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation – and their ideas from suppression – at the hands of an intolerant society," Pitman reserved special scorn for state attorneys' emphasis on the fact that 25 other states also have anti-BDS laws or executive orders on the books and the legislature's near-unanimous passage of the 2017 law, calling the deference to groupthink a "weakness."

The ruling merged two separate suits from plaintiffs who have little in common aside from their support for BDS and Palestinian rights. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) sued in December on behalf of Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist unable to renew her contract with a school district after nine years of employment because she refused to sign a no-boycott clause. That same month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed on behalf of John Pluecker, a freelance writer and translator unable to continue his contract work for a state university; Zachary Abdelhadi and Obinna Dennar, two students unable to contract with a school district to judge debate tournaments; and George Hale, a radio reporter forced to sign a no-boycott clause in order to keep his job.

The Texas law required a state employee or one contracting with the state to sign a pledge avowing they "do not currently boycott Israel," they "will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract," and that they will avoid any action "that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israeli or in an Israel-controlled territory." Texas is the third state since 2017 to stall or overturn anti-BDS legislation, following decisions in Kansas and Arizona, according to the ACLU, and a victory there is significant, given the strength of the state House's support for Israel – the city of Dickinson actually required residents applying for government aid to rebuild their homes following Hurricane Harvey to pledge not to boycott Israel in 2017, before retracting that requirement.

A nationwide 2017 bill that would have criminalized the BDS movement failed, but US immigration authorities barred BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti from the country earlier this month with no explanation, forcing him to cancel a speaking tour and preventing him from attending his daughter's wedding. Ending BDS is considered a top priority for AIPAC, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, and multiple anti-BDS resolutions have been proposed this year.

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BDS is a nonviolent protest movement that uses economic pressure techniques to protest Israel's illegal construction of settlements and military occupation of Palestine, as well as acts of violence and racist policies against Palestinians. Founded in 2005, it is modeled on the successful campaign waged against apartheid South Africa. The Israeli government, however, accuses the movement of seeking to "delegitimize" Israel, calling participants "enemy soldiers" and calling for their "targeted civil elimination."

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