Attempts to proscribe the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS) have suffered a major blow after a federal district court ruled that the State of Georgia’s 2016 law punishing boycotts of Israel is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.
Judge Mark Cohen ruled over a lawsuit brought by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) on behalf of journalist and filmmaker Abby Martin against Georgia Southern University. In July 2019, the pro-Palestine campaigner was scheduled to give a keynote address at the 2020 International Critical Media Literary Conference.
However Martin’s appearance and an honorarium of $1,000 was made conditional on her not supporting the BDS movement during the period around her keynote speech. State laws like the one in Georgia demand contractors like Martin pledge their loyalty to the Israeli government if they would like payment of $1,000 or more from state institutions.
In his decision, the judge concluded that the university had violated Martin’s constitutional rights when it cancelled her speaking engagement on a college campus because she refused to sign a state-mandated oath pledging not to engage in boycotts of Israel.
The court ruled that law requiring the pro-Palestinian campaigner curtail her BDS campaign “prohibits inherently expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment” and thus “burdens Martin’s right to free speech, and is not narrowly tailored to further a substantial state interest.”
Rejecting Georgia university’s defence the court insisted that “the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Count One of the First Amended Complaint is denied.”
Georgia university argued that its reason for curtailing Martin’s speech on BDS was because it had an interest in furthering foreign policy goals regarding relations with Israel. Dismissing the argument the judge said: “Defendants fail to explain how Martin’s advocacy of a boycott of Israel has any bearing on Georgia’s ability to advance foreign policy goals with Israel.”
“I am thrilled at the judge’s decision to strike down this law that so clearly violates the free speech rights of myself and so many others in Georgia,” Martin, the host of ‘Empire Files’, declared. “My First Amendment rights were restricted on behalf of a foreign government, which flies in the face of the principles of freedom and democracy.”
“The government of Israel has pushed state legislatures to enact these laws only because they know that sympathy and support for the population they brutalize, occupy, ethnically cleanse, and subject to apartheid is finally growing in popular consciousness,” Martin continued adding “they want to hold back the tide of justice by preemptively restricting the right of American citizens to peacefully take a stand against their crimes.”
Martin’s victory will be seen as a major boost for the BDS movement. Several American states have passed laws proscribing the peaceful campaign to end Israel’s ongoing occupation. Yet in states like Arkansas, Arizona, Kansas, Texas and now Georgia, federal courts have deemed these laws inappropriately prohibit speech and violate the First Amendment.
CAIR Legal Defence Fund and the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) welcomed the decision saying it was a “major victory.” In a statement, CAIR Georgia Executive Director Murtaza Khwaja said: “Whether in speaking out against voter suppression laws here in Georgia or human rights violations against the Palestinian people, Georgians are actively engaged in their constitutionally protected right to free speech and coordinated boycott. Now, as much as ever, these rights must be cherished and preserved. The court’s decision’s today is a significant step in ensuring Georgians are able to do so freely today and in future.”