Bipartisan Congressional Bill Threatens to Criminalize Peaceful Pro-Palestine Speech

Posted on July 27, 2017

UPDATE (9/7/17): A piece out last week from Portside reports that Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois’s 1st District has added his name to the growing list of Congress members who have rescinded their initial support for the Israel Anti-Boycott Act. Congressman Rush’s chief of staff has since confirmed that he no longer backs the legislation, and that he champions First Amendment-protected speech. While the Congressman’s staff noted that he was unable to withdraw from the list of cosponsors in conjunction with his statement in opposition to it, due to the Congressional recess at the time, he has since formally removed it as of this writing. Notwithstanding Congressman Rush’s rejection of the legislation, the bill still enjoys 252 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and 48 for its companion bill in the Senate, with both groups of supporters drawing from across party lines. 

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According to a new piece from The Intercept, legislators in both the US Senate and House of Representatives have put forward a measure which, if adopted, would impose shockingly harsh penalties on US citizens who support the peaceful Pro-Palestinian “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions,” or BDS, movement. The bill, the Israel Ant-Boycott Act (S. 720), would make it a felony to openly and actively support the BDS movement, and individuals found in violation of the statute would face a minimum of $250,000 in fines, with a potential maximum penalty of $1 million in fines and 20 years in prison, in accordance with the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. 

Though the bill was only introduced in March of this year, the bill has already garnered wide bipartisan support. The Senate bill has won the backing of 43 senators, and the House version of the legislation, H.R. 1697, enjoys the co-sponsorship of 234 representatives.

Critically, the bill would set an alarming precedent in its severe erosion of First Amendment-protected speech. Not only is the BDS campaign an entirely peaceful international political movement, but the Supreme Court has ruled that boycotts are a form of speech which is guaranteed under the First Amendment. The ACLU has since publicly expressed its grave concern over the measure for this very reason, stating that while it neither supports nor opposes the BDS movement, any effort to criminalize peaceful First Amendment activity should be viewed as a serious threat to the constitutional rights of all Americans. 

Amid a climate of increasingly brazen efforts by legislatures across the US to criminalize many forms of peaceful demonstration, the ACLU and other civil rights advocates have just cause for concern over this proposal. Regardless of how effectively the bill might reinforce US foreign policy objectives, any delegitimization or criminalization of peaceful First Amendment speech should be regarded as a dangerous abridgment of the most fundamental constitutional freedoms.

In response to the ACLU’s outspoken criticism of the bill, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, one of the co-authors of the legislation, indicated that he was neither aware of, nor intended, any criminal penalties as part of the bill, but acknowledged the ACLU’s concern and agreed to reevaluate it. But even absent the inclusion of criminal penalties for support of the BDS movement, the stiff civil penalty that the measure would impose is more than enough of a deterrent to effectively chill an indispensable form of First Amendment speech. Should the legislation be adopted, it would open the door to further efforts by Congress or the President to constrain other forms of free speech. 

You can read the full piece from The Intercept here