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“Free Speech Issue”: Meet the Arkansas Publisher & ACLU Lawyer Asking SCOTUS to Overturn Anti-BDS Law

StoryOctober 24, 2022
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Image Credit: "Boycott" / Just Vision Media

The ACLU is asking the Supreme Court to overturn an Arkansas anti-BDS law that penalizes state contractors unless they pledge not to boycott the state of Israel. Arkansas is one of more than 30 U.S. states to have passed “copycat” legislation to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to boycott Israel and Israeli goods to protest its violation of Palestinian rights. The ACLU and other rights groups have argued the right to boycott is foundational to U.S. politics and protected free speech, and warn if the anti-BDS laws aren’t challenged, Americans could lose their right to boycott fossil fuel companies, gun manufacturers and more. We speak with ACLU lawyer Brian Hauss and Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times and plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit. “The state of Arkansas is requiring us to take a political position in return for advertising,” says Leveritt, who calls his lawsuit “purely a First Amendment issue.” We also speak with filmmaker Julia Bacha, who followed Leveritt’s story in her documentary “Boycott” and says “it’s critical to start asking our elected officials why they voted for these bills and what they actually mean.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The ACLU has just asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an Arkansas law that requires all state contractors to sign a pledge declaring they will not boycott Israel. Arkansas is one of 35 U.S. states that have passed legislation to criminalize or discourage BDS. That’s the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to boycott Israel and Israeli goods to protest violations of Palestinian rights. The ACLU originally sued Arkansas on behalf of Alan Leveritt, the publisher of the Arkansas Times. He appears in the new documentary Boycott.

ALAN LEVERITT: I just object to government saying, “We got a big old wad of money over here, but we’re not — and we’ll give it to you, we’ll advertise with you, but here are some conditions that you need to meet first, such as here’s the political position you need to take.” Regarding foreign policy, for God’s sake. And we’re in Arkansas.

AMY GOODMAN: The documentary Boycott also looks at the case of Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian American speech pathologist in Texas. She lost her job of nine years for refusing to sign a pledge that she would, quote, “not boycott Israel during the term of the contract.”

BAHIA AMAWI: I have a lot of family members that still reside in the Occupied Territory. I know what I’ve seen firsthand, the injustice and inequality that goes on there. They close off main roads, only permitting Israelis to drive on those roads. Basically, the core idea is to make it as hard as possible for them to function and to have any livelihood at all, when you have school closures and arresting young children.

UNIDENTIFIED: Please, this is child. Why are you taking him?

BAHIA AMAWI: And I could not stay quiet and just go on with my life while I know that this law is going to make it OK to continue this kind of oppression against the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the documentary Boycott. We’re joined now by three guests. Julia Bacha is with us, director of Boycott, the creative director of Just Vision Media. Brian Hauss is also with us in New York City, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, which has asked the Supreme Court to overturn Arkansas’s anti-BDS law. They’re both in New York. And in Little Rock, we’re joined by Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times.

So, Alan, let’s begin with you. Explain why it is you decided to try to overturn this law that was passed in Arkansas.

ALAN LEVERITT: For us, it’s just basically a free speech issue. The state of Arkansas is requiring us to take a political position in return for advertising. We’re taxpayers here in Arkansas. We have as much right as anyone else to do business, to earn that business on our merits. And we’re being told that, “No, you have to also take a political position. You have to pass a political litmus test in order to do business.” And so, when we refused to sign and the state started shutting down our advertising, our state advertising, we sued. So, for us, it’s just — we’re not boycotting anyone; for us, it’s purely a First Amendment issue. This is still America.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what happened, how you saw this clause. You are a free newspaper. You rely on advertising for your income. It involves a lot of state money. Talk about what happened. You’ve been getting money for years.

ALAN LEVERITT: Oh, yeah, I started the Arkansas Times 48 years ago. And so, we’ve always done business with the colleges, with the Health Department, with the hospitals. And so, we started — after this law was passed, we didn’t pay any attention to it. It was obviously another culture war exercise, and we considered it meaningless. But we started getting these notices: “You need to sign this.” “You need to sign this.” And I just kept throwing them away, because you think about, there’s hundreds of thousands of transactions that the state of Arkansas or any state does every day, everything from sheet rock hangers to school teachers. And so, I just figured: How in the heck could they ever enforce this thing? It’s a stupid law to begin with. But there was one purchasing manager at one college that stayed on it until he finally overrode the marketing department and cut off our advertising.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about—

ALAN LEVERITT: And so, that was when —

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about who brought this law forward, the Republican majority leader of the Arkansas state Senate, Senator Bart Hester, the —

ALAN LEVERITT: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — sponsor of that law. We want to go to now a clip of what he had to say — he’s the sponsor of the Arkansas anti-boycott bill — as he talks about his religious motivation in passing the bill.

SEN. BART HESTER: The state is not protected from the church, but the church is protected from the state. I would say if there’s 35 members of the Arkansas Senate, I would say 35 members would say that they are believers and followers of Jesus Christ.

SPEAKER JEREMY GILLAM: Question before the House is passage of Senate Bill 513. Prepare the machine, Mr. Clerk.

SEN. BART HESTER: I would say probably half would identify as evangelical. They understand how important it is to support Israel.

SPEAKER JEREMY GILLAM: Sixty-nine yeas, three nays, and zero present. The bill is passed.

AMY GOODMAN: State Senator Bart Hester would later say he then hopes Jews will believe in Jesus Christ. I wanted to bring Julia Bacha — we got that clip from her film Boycott — into the discussion. You directed this film. You also have two remarkable moments in the film in Arkansas, Julia, one with a Democrat, a Democratic senator who you caught up with, and you asked him about whether he supported the bill. He had an amazing response. Talk about him.

JULIA BACHA: When we started making this film, there was very little public conversation or debate about the anti-boycott laws and the consequences for everyday Americans who want to exercise their political rights. And we decided that we were going to ask some questions. And we went into the Arkansas state Capitol and had the opportunity to interview Senator Bart Hester, whose clips you show here. And as part of our time in the Capitol, we also met with Senator Greg Leding, who is a Democrat, who voted for the bill, like the vast majority of Democrats in Arkansas and in many other states across the country did. Many of those Democrats today, like Leding, are saying that they didn’t actually understand what this bill meant. They didn’t understand the consequences and how it violated the First Amendment rights of Americans.

I think a lot of the reason why some of the Democrats are beginning to shift their opinion now is due to the lawsuits that the ACLU has brought around the country. There has been several. And in all of them, except the one by Alan Leveritt, the courts have decided that the anti-boycott bills are unconstitutional.

At the same time, these bills have continued to proliferate, now targeting other issue areas. So there are now anti-boycott bills targeting your ability to boycott the fossil fuels industry. There are anti-boycott bills targeting your ability to boycott the weapons industry. And I think it’s critical to start asking our elected officials why they voted for these bills and if they understand what they actually —

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s amazing in —

JULIA BACHA: — mean, which is what we tried to do in the film.

AMY GOODMAN: — in Arkansas is the Democrats said, “Listen, we vote on thousands of bills.” He said, “I wouldn’t support it now. I didn’t realize.” And then, Julia, you interview the rabbi of — is it B’nai Israel? — the largest synagogue in Arkansas, based in Little Rock, and he says he wasn’t approached on this. He said, “I consider myself a major supporter of Israel, but I don’t like this bill.”

JULIA BACHA: We found that there is a discrepancy between the motivations that some of the right-wing, conservative, evangelical elected officials are saying that is motivating them, which is this is based on a very literal reading of the Bible that leads them to believe that they need to do everything that they can possibly do to restore the biblical borders of Israel, which, you know, ultimately, according to their reading of the Bible, will lead to the second coming of Jesus Christ, when, as Senator Hester speaks about that in the film, Jews will have one last chance to convert to Christianity, or they will go to hell. So, they have this — they’re influenced by this biblical reading that they’re now bringing to their policymaking.

But when you actually look at how diverse the Jewish community in the U.S. is on this issue — and we got to talk with the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Arkansas, who says he is absolutely opposed to anti-boycott bills, and talks about how important First Amendment rights and free speech is for all communities in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Alan, The New York Times did a piece on your case in Arkansas. Again, Alan Leveritt is the publisher of the Arkansas Times. It’s got an interesting cover. It’s the picture of a typewriter, and it says, “We’re a Small Arkansas Newspaper. Why Is the State Making Us Sign a Pledge About Israel?” If you can then take us through your legal challenges, your wins and your losses so far? And then we’re going to bring Brian Hauss into this conversation, who’s now appealing to the Supreme Court.

ALAN LEVERITT: So, this bill has been passed in 30-some-odd legislatures throughout the country. It’s basically the American Legislative Exchange Council, where these cookie-cutter bills they have done with Republican legislatures around the country. And so, we sued the state. We lost in federal court here in Little Rock, and then also we appealed, and then we won before a three-judge panel in the 8th Circuit. It’s a very conservative court. And then the state appealed that to the full circuit, and we lost before the full circuit. And so now we have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and we are waiting to see if we’ll get a hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re both the publisher of the Arkansas Times and you’re a farmer?

ALAN LEVERITT: I am. I raise heirloom tomatoes. I’m very small. I have about a thousand vines. And I’ve been — I live on my great-grandparents’ farm. We’ve been in Arkansas forever. And so, I inherited my great-grandfather’s old log house where my grandmother was raised. And so, I have the most beautiful place on Earth, and I’m just very, very lucky to live in Arkansas. I love Arkansas. And that’s why we publish the Arkansas Times.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of farms, we can also speak about climate change and this issue of this bill, this anti-boycott bill, being used as a template for so many others, like not going after the fossil fuel industry. I wanted to turn to the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Lara Friedman, who’s speaking in Julia’s film, Boycott, about the role of the corporate lobbying group the American Legislative Exchange Council, Alan, which you referenced, in shaping anti-boycott legislation.

LARA FRIEDMAN: You may not care about Israel-Palestine, but you should care, if it’s being used as a hook to legislate in your states and at the federal level against free speech. How many words would I have to change in this legislation to use it to condition contracts and thereby quash free speech of anyone who, say, supports Black Lives Matter or is involved in protesting for environmental reasons? And it’s like 10 words. It’s a template. Why people are not more worried about it is just baffling.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Brian Hauss, you are the ACLU’s senior staff attorney. You’ve appealed this case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Just last week, we did an hour on Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, a new documentary that’s out on Peacock. Of course, she and Dr. Martin Luther King led a boycott, a bus boycott, of the Montgomery transportation system to get it to integrate, which happened like a year later. Can you put this in context and why you’ve decided to take Alan Leveritt’s case to the Supreme Court?

BRIAN HAUSS: Sure thing. So, I think it’s important to step back and realize that boycotts have always been a fundamental part of American politics. It’s not for nothing that we say people vote with their pocketbooks. This country was founded on a boycott of British goods to protest Parliament, and boycotts have been part and parcel of American politics ever since, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the boycott of apartheid South Africa to boycotts across the political spectrum today, whether it’s boycotts of businesses that support Planned Parenthood or boycotts of businesses that support the National Rifle Association.

But what the 8th Circuit held in Alan’s case is that although the First Amendment might protect speech or association promoting a boycott, it doesn’t protect the purchasing decisions at the heart of the boycott itself. And what that would mean is that states have the power to selectively suppress, censor and penalize boycotts on disfavored topics, like boycotts of Israel. Now, that decision not only flies in the face of common sense, it also contradicts the Supreme Court’s binding and unanimous landmark precedent in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware. And that’s why we think the Supreme Court needs to step in and correct this fundamental error.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the other cases? I mean, Julia talks about them in the film Boycott, using the example of an Arizona law and also what happened in Texas with the Palestinian American pediatric audio pathologist who could not believe one year when she’s just signing off on her contract to have her job with the schools, and it said, “You will not support any kind of boycott of Israel.” And she’s this local pathologist. Why is she talking about Israel in a local contract? She won?

BRIAN HAUSS: She won. That’s right. We’ve brought cases in Kansas, Arizona, Texas, and another organization brought a lawsuit in Georgia. And in all of those cases, the federal courts held that these laws violate the First Amendment right to participate in politically motivated consumer boycotts.

And what I think these cases show is how deep these laws reach into Americans’ private lives. And they’re asking people from all different walks of life, whether it’s a speech pathologist in Texas, a lawyer in Arizona, a substitute teacher who wanted just to participate in a teacher training program in Kansas — all of these people are being forced to go on record and say, “I’m not participating in boycotts of Israel.” They’re essentially being asked to disavow their First Amendment rights as a condition of earning a living. And that just fundamentally violates the First Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does it mean that this is going to the Supreme Court? First they have to decide whether to take it, is that right?

BRIAN HAUSS: That’s correct. So the first thing we are doing is we’re filing a petition for a writ of certiorari. That’s the justices decide whether this is a case that they’re going to review this term. Four votes are necessary to take the case up for consideration.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would this mean for you, Alan Leveritt, as we begin to wrap up? I mean, you’ve been living with this case now for several years. What kind of response have you gotten in Little Rock and around your beloved state of Arkansas?

ALAN LEVERITT: Julia pointed out most people are still unaware that this is the law, because it was passed through without any fanfare, without any real news coverage. And so, most people, when I tell them or they ask me about it and I explain it to them, they just kind of look at me blankly, and they say, “What does that have to do with Arkansas?” And it has nothing to do with Arkansas. It has everything to do with culture wars that are being waged in this country, particularly by the Republican legislatures, particularly ours.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for being with us, Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times and heirloom tomato farmer; Brian Hauss, ACLU senior staff attorney; and Julia Bacha, director of the film Boycott. She also made the film Naila and the Uprising, which just premiered at the FiSahara Film Festival at the Algerian refugee camps of the Sahrawis.

That does it for our show. Happy belated birthday to Robby Karran! I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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Inside Israel’s Cover-up & U.S. Response to Murder of Palestinian American Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh

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