Posted on May 16, 2015 in Arab American Institute


Chilling attacks on free speech

In the 1964 case New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed America’s “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” This legal tradition of protecting political speech necessarily includes foreign governments and public officials, as well, as their policies are central to how our federal government interacts with other nations across the world.

In keeping with this national commitment to free speech, a wide array of American communities have organized around justice for Palestine. However, these movements have historically been met by equally organized attempts to intimidate, harass, and exclude individuals and groups associated with such activities from mainstream political participation. Rooted in what we call the “politics of exclusion,” this “political racism” originally targeted Arab American organizing efforts. Today, the campaign to silence debate about U.S. policy toward the Israeli government, and criticism of Israeli policies, affects a diverse and growing coalition of communities.

College campuses are in many ways the front lines of the free speech challenge. With the rise of student groups that support Palestinian rights---including Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Black Lives Matter, and more---there is now a sophisticated campaign to define or conflate criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic hate speech. A dark side of this campaign can be seen in the work of the Canary Mission, a website that anonymously publishes profiles of students they claim “promote a hatred of the USA and Israel.” Yet the students who are profiled, including American Jewish students, are known to have advocated for social justice causes and, for some, simply displayed ethnic pride, not anti-Semitic views. These students are often harassed due to their profiles on Canary Mission, and future employment opportunities are threatened. 

There is also a campaign to erode the right to boycott---a cherished American tradition- --by passing laws in state legislatures, by Executive Order, and in the U.S. Congress. More than two dozen “anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)” bills and resolutions have been introduced at the state, local, and federal level. These laws come in a variety of forms, but they all have the intended effect of punishing businesses and organizations that associate with any part of the BDS movement. However, these “antiBDS” laws are direct infringements on the constitutional right to boycott, and they limit debate on U.S. policies towards the Israeli government. In the face of a fundamental challenge to free speech and the right to advocate for one's beliefs, we must reject these regressive efforts and work to uphold the American tradition of non-violent social justice movements.

Snapshots: American Citizens Discriminated Against at the Israeli Border


As part of AAI's Advocacy Roadmap - we are organizing around TWO LOCAL ACTIONS TO PROTECT FREE SPEECH & ADVANCE JUSTICE FOR PALESTINE:



Target: U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, and state legislatures.


(1) Oppose legislative efforts that would legally redefine “anti-Semitism” to include criticism of Israel as hate speech. American citizens have the right to criticize the policies of foreign governments, and competitive academic settings require robust debate about policy. Defining criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic is extremely problematic. Demand that your local, state, and federal representatives vote against bills which criminalize or penalize legitimate political expression.

(2) Assist schools, universities, educators, and students who are being harassed, intimidated, and having their constitutional rights infringed because of their activism on Palestine, by expressing support for open political expression to the institution’s governing body, such as a Board of Trustees. Schools are having their funding threatened, student groups are being forcibly disbanded, students are being surveilled, and teachers are staking their jobs on their classroom teaching. This environment puts American academia and democracy in jeopardy. These people and organizations need our help.

(3) Push policymakers to listen to, and publicly thank those, who speak out about Palestinian stories. Do not protect Israel from criticism, and do not ignore Palestinian voices. Few policymakers are courageous enough to criticize even the most egregious of Israeli policies, or are willing to elevate the suffering or perspective of the Palestinian people. 



Target: U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, and state legislatures.


(1) Oppose any legislation that restricts protected forms of speech – including the right to boycott. Infringing on Constitutionally-protected activities and political speech is un-democratic. Students, businesses, and organizations should not be targeted or punished for exercising their rights.

(2) Roll back “anti-BDS” laws where they exist. Several states have already passed antiBDS laws. These laws must be challenged in court or by popular referendum, if applicable.

(3) Organize meetings, letters, emails, calls, social media to draw attention to, and garner support for, the right to boycott.