South Carolina forces universities to violate free speech rights


South Carolina passed a law this week codifying a discredited definition of anti-Semitism that conflates criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry.

“The law will inevitably violate students’ First Amendment rights if enforced to restrict or punish campus speech critical of Israel,” Dima Khalidi, director of the civil rights group Palestine Legal, told The Electronic Intifada.

Students now face increased scrutiny, investigations, censorship and possible punishment for their activities advocating for Palestinian rights on South Carolina campuses, Palestine Legal has warned.

The anti-Semitism definition, which has been pushed by Israel lobby groups in the US and Europe, is sometimes referred to as the “State Department Definition” because a version of it was adopted by the US State Department.

The measure was added as a rider on South Carolina’s 2018-2019 budget bill, which makes the law valid for only one year.

It will require state-funded institutions to use the definition when investigating alleged incidents of anti-Semitism on campuses.

Notably, the lead author of the original anti-Semitism definition, former American Jewish Committee executive Kenneth Stern, has strongly opposed efforts to enshrine it in legislation, arguing that it could lead to unconstitutional censorship.

The clear purpose of the South Carolina law “is to target political speech critical of Israel,” Khalidi said.

She added that Palestine Legal will be “monitoring its implementation closely over the next year, and exploring potential legal challenges.”

Last month, lawmakers in the US Congress re-introduced a bill – the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act – that would use the same definition of anti-Semitism to assess speech critical of Israel.

If the bill passes, Kenneth Marcus, a long-time Israel advocate and Trump appointee who heads the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, would be instructed to use the definition to judge whether or not anti-Semitism is taking place on US campuses.

The Brandeis Center, a pro-Israel lawfare group previously headed by Marcus, backed the South Carolina legislation.

South Carolina is one of 25 states that have passed measures, pushed by Israel lobby groups, that aim to stifle Palestine rights advocacy and seek to crush the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. Legislation is pending in another 12 states.

The US Congress is also considering the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which could impose prison and heavy fines on companies or their personnel accused of abiding by boycotts of Israel called for by international organizations.

Louisiana punishes, threatens businesses that boycott

In May, Louisiana’s Democratic governor John Bel Edwards issued an executive order prohibiting the state government from doing business with companies accused of boycotting Israel.

The order directs state officials “to terminate existing state contracts with companies if they are currently boycotting Israel or supporting those who do so,” reports The Times-Picayune.

Companies will be required to certify that they are not currently boycotting Israel before being awarded a state contract.

The order applies to companies that earn more than $100,000 in a state contract or that have more than five employees.

Edwards issued the order “on the same night he was celebrating the 70th anniversary of Israel at the governor’s mansion,” according to The Times-Picayune.

In January, the New Orleans city council passed a resolution to start screening investments and contracts and divest from corporations that profit from human rights abuses, becoming the first major city in the US South to pass such a measure.

But following heavy pressure from pro-Israel Jewish communal organizations and right-wing lawmakers, the council unanimously voted two weeks later to rescind the resolution.

Victory in Missouri

Meanwhile, human rights activists are celebrating the failure of a measure that would have punished supporters of the BDS campaign in Missouri.

The bill – which was introduced in both houses of the state legislature – would have denied state contracts worth $10,000 or more to businesses and organizations that support the Israel boycott.

Activists say that the legislation’s failure was a direct result of months of grassroots organizing, pressure on lawmakers and testimonies during committee hearings, according to the Missouri Right to Boycott campaign.

In a memo to state lawmakers, 15 rights groups called the legislation “constitutionally indefensible” and “a McCarthyite political litmus test on any company or nonprofit organization that wants to enter into a contract with the state.”

“Israel’s attacks on protesters in Gaza illustrate precisely why people of conscience in Missouri and all over the world are heeding the Palestinian call to engage in BDS campaigns that this legislation would have penalized,” said Neveen Ayesh of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee and American Muslims for Palestine.

Kansas law amended

The American Civil Liberties Union says it has withdrawn its lawsuit challenging a 2017 Kansas state law requiring contractors to certify that they will not boycott Israel.

The state amended its law so that it does not apply to individuals, but is still enforceable against businesses and contracts that exceed $100,000, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal.

The ACLU maintains that the law still violates the First Amendment.

A federal judge blocked enforcement of the law in January, citing free speech violations.

The ACLU brought the suit on behalf of Esther Koontz, a math teacher who was denied a state educational training contract because she supports the BDS movement and could not sign the required declaration in good conscience.

“While the changes reduce the number of people required to sign the anti-boycott certification, the fundamental purpose of the law – to suppress political boycotts of Israel and chill protected expression – remains unconstitutional,” said ACLU lawyer Brian Hauss, who argued the issue in a Kansas court.

The court ordered the state to pay Koontz more than $41,000 for her legal fees.

The ACLU and the Council on American Islamic Relations have filed lawsuits against the state of Arizona over its 2016 law which creates a blacklist of companies, organizations and other entities accused of boycotting Israel.

A federal court heard arguments on the law in late May.

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