When Boycotting Leads to Blacklisting: Anti-BDS Legislation in States Across the U.S.

Posted by Shadi Matar on February 12, 2016 in Blog

Since its founding in 2005, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has become one of the leading tactics for Palestine human rights advocates in the United States. The movement, a non-violent response to Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, has grown so quickly over the past decade that organizations and legislators are trying to pass laws to suppress BDS and brand its supporters as anti-Semites. These efforts have been fought against by civil liberties groups, legal organizations, and Palestine solidarity activists who rightly assert that this type of legislation a suppression of the right to free speech and thus unconstitutional.

The legislation comes after a range of organizations, including  college campuseslabor unions, and academics, passed various types pro-BDS resolutions and bills. Many who have supported these boycott efforts have felt repercussions from organizations that create blacklists of BDS supporters in an effort to harass and intimidate BDS activists. 

As of January of 2016, over two dozen anti-BDS bills and resolutions have been introduced at local, state, and federal levels across the United States. Currently three states have pieces of legislation are pending: California, Virginia, and Indiana. The threats of similar legislation being presented in other states. These resolutions and bills usually have two goals:  to prohibit state agencies from contracting with persons, businesses, or corporations that participate in a boycott, and/or to punish businesses who are already contracted with the state, who choose to participate in a boycott.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that supporting a boycott is political speech, and thus is protected under the First Amendment. Historically, boycotts have played a major role in U.S. history and the Supreme Court has always defended the constitutional right of people to participate in boycotts. 

One of the more alarming patterns in these bills has been targeting individuals and organizations who participate in the boycott in order to put them on a blacklist and intimidate others from joining the boycott.  This McCarthy-like tactic of fearmongering has already appeared in multiple bills that don’t even hide their intentions. A bill that was proposed in New York explicitly mentioned that it would create a blacklist of persons that boycott or encourage others to boycott U.S. allies. 

Although there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of anti-BDS bills being introduced into legislatures around the county, there has also been a major pushback from organizations who denounce the bills as explicitly unconstitutional. This pushback has been echoed by civil liberties groups as well peace activists across the spectrum. Even organizations who do not agree with BDS as a tactic are against the suppression of BDS.

While many of these pieces of legislation that have already been proposed have failed, many more are poised to be introduced.  The bottom line is that whether or not you support the BDS Movement - or any boycotts directed toward Israel or illegal Israeli settlements - it is unconstitutional to outlaw the tactic outright and ostracize the organizations, businesses, and individuals who support it.