Arkansas Times challenges law that requires state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel in federal court | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Arkansas Times challenges law that requires state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel in federal court

Posted By on Tue, Dec 11, 2018 at 11:58 AM

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The Arkansas Times Limited Partnership, the company that owns and publishes the Arkansas Times, is challenging in federal court a state law that requires government contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel or reduce their fees by at least 20 percent.

The suit, filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas on behalf of Arkansas Times LP, says Act 710 of 2017 violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by suppressing public debate. State Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) and Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) sponsored the bill that became Act 710, which took effect July 31, 2017.

Here is the complaint, the motion for a preliminary injunction and declaratory relief and a brief in support of an injunction and declaratory relief. The lawsuit has been assigned to Magistrate Judge Beth Deere and U.S. District Judge Brian Miller.

The Times initiated the suit after the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College, which has advertised regularly in the Times and its sister publications, informed the Times that it had to sign a certification that it would not engage in a boycott of Israel if it wanted to continue to receive advertising contracts from the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees on behalf of UAPTC. The university imposed this condition because Act 710 requires all state institutions to do so. Times publisher Alan Leveritt declined, and UAPTC has refused to advertise further with the Times. The Times has never participated in a boycott of Israel or editorialized in support of one.

“Campuses in the University of Arkansas system have been advertising with us for years, so we were shocked and more than a little troubled when they sent over what looked like a loyalty oath as a condition of payment,” Leveritt said. “As journalists, we are fervent believers that the First Amendment’s speech protections are essential to a free and just society and would never sign a contract that’s conditioned on the unconstitutional suppression of free speech. Regardless of what people may think about this particular boycott, it is not the government’s place to decide what causes Arkansans can or cannot support.”

The law defines “boycott of Israel” as “engaging in refusals to deal, terminating business activities, or other actions that are intended to limit commercial relations with Israel, or persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories, in a discriminatory manner.” It applies to all contracts valued at $1,000 or more.

“This law imposes an unconstitutional tax on free speech,” said Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director. “The state has no business telling Arkansans what causes they can or can’t support — or charging them a fee just because they hold a particular viewpoint. Our client is simply asking the courts to uphold a fundamental First Amendment principle that the government cannot force people to subscribe to a specific political viewpoint.”

The lawsuit names as defendants the members of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees: Mark Waldrip, John Goodson, Morril Harriman, Kelly Eichler, David Pryor, Stephen Broughton, C.C. Gibson, Sheffield Nelson, Tommy Boyer and Steve Cox. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, argues, “There is no plausible justification for the certification requirement, except the desire to identify, punish, and chill disfavored political beliefs and associations. That justification cannot survive First Amendment scrutiny.” The suit asks for an injunction to prevent the UA Board of Trustees from enforcing the requirement against all government contractors, not just the Times.

Dotson told the Associated Press in 2017 that the law was a reaction to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement that targets Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Arkansas’s law is similar to those in more than a dozen other states. Federal judges in Arizona and Kansas issued injunctions against the enforcement of similar laws earlier this year. The Kansas judge later dismissed the case after the Kansas legislature altered its law.

At the federal level, versions of the Israel Anti-Boycott Act have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate, but neither has come up for a vote. U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas is a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, along with a number of Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.

Arkansas’s Act 710 also requires public entities to identify and create a list of all companies that boycott Israel for distribution to their retirement systems, and requires their investment managers to demand certification from those companies that they cease their boycott. The managers must divest from those companies who refuse to withdraw their boycotts.

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