As many readers of this blog will remember, earlier this year, we had a months-long discussion of the pros and cons of “cancellation” and related topics, initiated in part by this long post of mine in December, and this long rejoinder by David Potts a few weeks later. Feel free to click the “cancel culture” tag to follow some of the preceding and subsequent discussion, which eventually petered out (at least on my end) less through any dearth of topics left to discuss, or desire to discuss them, than from the lack of time to pursue the discussion to a proper conclusion. That said, I thought that the discussion was a useful airing-out of some contentious issues.
I was reminded of it after reading this piece reproduced below from Just Vision, an activist organization dedicated to promoting “a pluralistic, just and rights-respecting future in Israel-Palestine.” Comment, it seems to me, is mostly superfluous: the letter mostly speaks for itself. What it says is that the right to boycott is, constitutionally speaking, on the line. A country that began its political life with boycotts against imperialist occupation, and used them–successfully–for two centuries as a non-violent means of resistance to injustice, is now wondering whether boycotts deserve protection under its Bill of Rights. And what is the countervailing consideration? Whether the US government has the authority to force its citizens and residents not to boycott a foreign power as a condition on accepting public funds. Logically, the demand is inches away from demanding loyalty to that foreign power: coerced alienation of the right to boycott a country is, at a basic level, a coerced confession to honor that country’s claims to respectability.
I’m not sure I would have believed, twenty years ago, that the United States would find its way to a predicament as sinister or absurd as this. But here we are. It has. Imagine that the American civil rights or anti-apartheid movements had confronted a comparable legal prospect: a universal, nation-wide ban on boycotts (or support for them) as a condition on the receipt of public funds. What would the result have looked like? Kind of obvious, I think. Montgomery, Birmingham, Soweto, and Pretoria would probably look a lot like Shaykh Jarrah, Hebron, and Gaza do today. The question is whether the latter places deserve to join the ranks of the former, or whether they’re fated to be consigned to the garbage dumps of human existence. Put it this way: once we lose the right to advocate for them, and to put that advocacy into action, the human garbage dump is where they’re headed.
Dear Irfan,I’m writing with breaking news. Today the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that boycotts are not protected by the First Amendment. The ACLU has confirmed they will take the case to the Supreme Court, with huge implications for free speech and the right to boycott in the US. Our team has been following this case closely as one of the key stories chronicled in our latest film, Boycott.The case centers around an Arkansas law that requires public contractors to sign a pledge promising that they do not boycott Israel. Versions of this law have been passed in 33 states since 2016. In recent years, several Americans have challenged these laws, suing their respective states for violating their First Amendment rights. In almost every case — from Texas to Arizona to Kansas to Georgia — the plaintiffs won, with courts finding the anti-boycott laws unconstitutional.The only exception has been Arkansas, where Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times, is the plaintiff. Alan originally lost in District Court but when he appealed to a three-judge panel at the Eighth Circuit, he won. The State of Arkansas was then granted a re-hearing.Today, the final ruling came out against Alan with the court deciding that boycotts, even when politically motivated, are strictly economic activity and not a form of expression. Brian Hauss, the ACLU’s chief litigator in the case has said that the decision “misreads Supreme Court precedent and departs from this nation’s long standing traditions.” He expressed hope that the Supreme Court “will set things right and reaffirm the nation’s historic commitment to providing robust protection to political boycotts.”Alan believes that as a news publisher, he has a special duty to stand up for free speech rights. As he wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed: “We don’t take political positions in return for advertising. If we signed the pledge, I believe, we’d be signing away our right to freedom of conscience. And as journalists, we would be unworthy of the protections granted us under the First Amendment.”When we started filming Boycott, we understood there was a risk that the anti-boycott legislation vis-a-vis Israel could be used as a template. By the time we finished the film, this was already becoming a reality. There are now copycat bills targeting boycotts of fossil fuels, firearms and other industries. As Alan’s case heads to the Supreme Court, it is not only advocacy for Palestinian rights, the environment or gun safety that stands on the line — but our very right to protest, and to band together for collective political action.With the stakes increasingly high, we remain committed to sounding the alarm on this story, and you can help us. Share the news on social media, ask your go-to news outlet to cover this story and get in touch to organize a screening of Boycott in your community. These laws have been able to pass with such ease in large part due to the lack of public scrutiny around its origins and implications.The time to change that is now.Onwards,Julia BachaCreative Director, Just VisionDirector, Boycott