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  February 5, 2018

Kansas Teacher Scores Big Win for Israel Boycott, and Free Speech

A federal judge has ruled that Esther Koontz's constitutional rights were violated when she was denied a Kansas teaching job over her refusal to renounce the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel
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Rahul Saksena is a staff attorney with Palestine Legal. His work focuses on legislative issues and legal advocacy for Palestine rights activists. Rahul is based in New York City.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. In what is being called a major victory for freedom of speech, a federal court has ruled that a Kansas law that punishes people who adhere to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement against Israel is unconstitutional. The State of Kansas had used the law to refuse to sign a contract with schoolteacher Esther Koontz over her support for BDS, but the court found that Koontz's right to boycott is constitutionally protected. Rahul Saksena is a Staff Attorney with Palestine Legal and he joins me now.

Welcome, Rahul. Tell us about the case of Esther Koontz.

RAHUL SAKSENA: Sure, thank you for having me. So, Esther Koontz is a veteran math teacher in the State of Kansas. She's a member of the Mennonite Church USA, and she supports boycotts for Palestinian rights, boycotts to protest the Israeli government's abuses of Palestinian rights. Last summer, in July the State of Kansas enacted an anti-boycott law that basically said if you want to contract with the state, or say to teach math or to train math teachers, as Esther was intending to do, you have to certify that you are not engaged in a boycott for Palestinian rights. Esther refused to certify the form, and instead, she went to the ACLU, and with the ACLU, she filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this anti-boycott law.

And As you mentioned, just last week a federal court in Kansas issued a preliminary injunction, stopping the state from enforcing the law while the lawsuit proceeds. The federal judge, in that preliminary injunction said things that we at Palestinian Legal and other legal organizations across the country have been saying for years. One, that boycotts for Palestinian rights are political boycotts that are protected by the First Amendment. Back in 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled that such boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, in a case called NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware. And second, the judge said that because these boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, the State of Kansas cannot enact these kinds of laws aimed at punishing individuals like Esther from engaging in their First Amendment-protected speech.

AARON MATÉ: So, what is the wider significance of the court ruling against the law in this case, even though in Kansas the law still stands, right?

RAHUL SAKSENA: The law still stands pending the outcome of the lawsuit but they are blocked from enforcing it. And actually, this can have pretty wide repercussions across the country. As you may know, just in the past few years, 24 states have enacted similar anti-BDS, anti-boycott laws aimed at punishing those who engage in boycotts for Palestinian rights. The first state to do so was in 2015, was South Carolina, under Governor Nikki Haley who is now in the United Nations, President Trump's representative to the UN.

Since then, 24 states have enacted such laws. All of them violate First Amendment-protected rights because as I mentioned, the right to boycott, the right to engage in political boycotts for Palestinian rights, is a right protected by the First Amendment. Similar bills are being considered in Congress as well. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act is actually one of the most draconian of these laws. It's a law introduced by Senator Cardin in the US Senate and has broad bipartisan support and is being backed by AIPAC. It would actually impose severe criminal penalties and severe financial penalties on some actions taken in support of boycotts for Palestinian rights.

So, this is a broad issue. It's a broad trend, and it's part of an even broader trend to suppress and censor Palestinian rights activism across the country. Instead of engaging the issue on the merits, instead of having a conversation in this country about Israeli human rights abuses and Palestinian freedom, Israel advocacy organizations have been engaging in a widespread effort to suppress any criticism of Israeli government policies, on college campuses, through laws in state legislatures, as well as in Congress.

AARON MATÉ: The figures from your group are quite striking. Palestine Legal responded to 308 suppression incidents having to do with BDS in 2017, nearly 1,000 in the last four years. You detail some of them. Most famously, there was a pledge imposed on victims of Hurricane Harvey, saying that if you want to receive relief, you have to pledge not to boycott Israel. Just last month, we saw the City of New Orleans, the City Council, rescind a measure that seemed to favor boycotts, after heavy pressure from pro-Israel groups, or pro-Israeli government groups, I should say. That kind of political pressure that's been brought to bear on both advocates of boycott and also lawmakers who are being pushed towards criminalizing or punishing boycotts, how powerful is that?

RAHUL SAKSENA: Well, there's a divide in this country. I think on the ground, at the grassroots level, support for Palestinian rights, including support for boycotts for Palestinian rights is growing, growing exponentially, I think. Yet at the lawmaker level, there's often broad bipartisan support for efforts to censor and suppress and punish those who speak out in support of Palestinian freedom. So, there is that divide and I think it's growing more and more stark and more and more obvious for people on the ground.

I think that, especially in the Trump era, where we need to protect our right to dissent and our First Amendment rights, it's just pretty shameful that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are willing to enact these laws aimed at censoring and suppressing boycotts for Palestinian rights. This is a time where we need to stand up and support our First Amendment rights. I think that the federal court's injunction last week was a great step forward, and I hope that lawmakers across the country will look at it and understand it and understand that they cannot infringe on First Amendment rights like they have been.

AARON MATÉ: Rahul Saksena, Staff Attorney with Palestine Legal, thank you.


AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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