Looking up: Free speech?

Looking up: Free speech?

You’ve seen a lot of talk about free speech recently, especially from the right wing. People cry “free speech!” when disinvited from a speaking gig because they advocate violence or pedophilia (or, frankly, just don’t add anything to the political discourse except outrageous extremism). They cry “free speech” when other people use their own free speech to disagree with them, or organize a protest about what they said, or talk about their public affiliations in a more high-profile forum.

Usually when these conversations come up, some long-suffering person has to step up and try to remind people that the right of free speech means the government cannot stop you from speaking or punish you for speaking. Not anything else. Not no consequences to your speech. Et cetera.

So how handy that to really drive the difference home we now have an example of a bill that would actually curtail free speech for real being considered in Congress right now!

I’m speaking, of course, about HR 1697/S. 720, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which currently has no fewer than 46 Senate cosponsors, including our own Sens. Schumer and Gillibrand, plus 249 in the House. The bill amends The 1979 Export Administration Act to make extra super clear that not only do the bill’s sponsors disagree with the United Nations’ criticisms of Israel’s human rights record and the call to boycott companies that do business in the occupied territories, but that no American is allowed to agree—either to boycott or call for a boycott.

(It does specify those “engaged in interstate or foreign commerce,” but that’s (a) not enough to make it ok and (b) a terrible slippery slope.)

The ACLU, the experts on defending everyone’s free speech regardless of political opinion, minced no words about this bill:

“This bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies. There are millions of businesses and individuals who do no business with Israel, or with companies doing business there, for a number of reasons. Some, like those who would face serious financial penalties and jail time under the bill, actively avoid purchasing goods or services from companies that do business in Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories because of a political viewpoint opposed to Israeli policy. Others may refrain from Israeli-related business based on political beliefs, but choose not to publicly announce their reasoning. Still others do no business with companies in Israel for purely pragmatic reasons. Under the bill, however, only a person whose lack of business ties to Israel is politically motivated would be subject to fines and imprisonment – even though there are many others who engage in the very same behavior. In short, the bill would punish businesses and individuals based solely on their point of view. Such a penalty is in direct violation of the First Amendment.”

The bill even criminalizes asking for information about the boycott movement.

It is, in short, not a borderline case. This is criminalizing political speech.

This might be a good time to look at the research Jobs to Move America did earlier this year digging into the fight between cities and the Reagan administration over whether they could divest from South Africa. The research was done with an eye to defending Sanctuary Cities from threatened funding cuts, but it might be relevant here as well. It details the various legal pressures the federal government brought to bear—some cities, like New York City, quickly gave in to them. Others, notably Baltimore, did not, and with the support of grassroots activists, eventually prevailed in the courts.

When I called Sen. Schumer’s office on July 20 to express my opposition as a constituent to S 720, the staffer I spoke with noted that the bill doesn’t add any new penalties or make anything illegal that hasn’t already been illegal since the ‘70s. I’m not at all sure that’s true (if it is, why not just apply those laws if you think they are being broken?). But if it is, that almost makes it worse. If you really aren’t adding anything to the law, then what you are doing is using the federal lawmaking process to create a climate of intimidation and fear targeting one specific cause. (Gillibrand has since said something vague about wanting the bill “changed,” perhaps feeling some blowback.)

Is this really a precedent the Democrats want to hand to this administration? Like, “Gee, as long as the president is rubbing up really hard against the line of just abandoning any pretension of sticking to democracy, how about we go ahead and get our own anti-free-speech agenda underway too? Silver lining?” Democrats—there is a reason that your approval ratings are still so low despite what you are up against. This is a splendid example of that reason.

So now the good news: Since preserving free speech is so important to everyone across the political spectrum, we ought to now have a common enemy to rally against in this bill and be able to easily defeat it. Step on up and do your part!

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