A federal court struck down a Texas law requiring government contractors to certify they are not engaged in boycotts of Israel.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted preliminary injunctions on Thursday night and cited several rulings to buttress his conclusion that state law HB 89 is unconstitutional.
“At the heart of the First Amendment lies the principle that each person should decide for him or herself the ideas and beliefs deserving of expression, consideration, and adherence. Our political system and cultural life rest upon this ideal,” Pitman said in his opinion.
“The purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular[,]” is “to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation – and their ideas from suppression – at the hands of an intolerant society.”
Pitman denied the state’s motion to dismiss two lawsuits and temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the two-year-old law.
“The statute threatens ‘to suppress unpopular ideas’” and “manipulate the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion,’” Pitman said, citing a previous ruling. “This the First Amendment does not allow.”
The office of state Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement saying it looks forward to “defending this law on appeal.”
“We’re disappointed with the ruling essentially requiring government to do business with discriminatory companies,” his office said.
Texans issue complaints
One of the lawsuits was filed by the ACLU on behalf of four Texans: John Pluecker, George Hale, Obinna Dennar and Zachary Abdelhadi.
Pluecker is a freelance writer, artist, interpreter and translator who has lost two service contracts with the University of Houston because he refused to certify that he will not boycott Israel. Hale, a radio reporter, was forced to sign a certification “against his conscience” to continue working at KETR, a National Public Radio station owned and operated by Texas A&M University-Commerce.
Dennar said was forced to forfeit payment for judging at a Klein Independent School District debate tournament because he actively participates in a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. The BDS movement aims to generate economic and political pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories. Abdelhadi, a Texas State University student, said he was unable to judge high school debate tournaments for the Lewisville Independent School District because he boycotts Israel.
Another suit was filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations on behalf of children’s speech pathologist Bahia Amawi, who said Pflugerville Independent School District terminated her contract after she refused to sign a certification about the boycott.
ACLU, CAIR praise ruling
A Texas ACLU staff attorney called Thursday’s ruling a “victory for the free speech rights of all Texans.”
“The right to boycott is deeply ingrained in American tradition, from our nation’s founding to today. The state cannot dictate the views of its own citizens on the Israel/Palestine conflict – or any issue – by preventing them from exercising their First Amendment right to boycott,” ACLU attorney Tommy Buser-Clancy said.
In an ACLU statement, Pluecker said he is “very happy that the judge has decided to support our right to hold our own political beliefs and express them as we see fit.”
Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said the court “affirmed its understanding that this law was intended to chill” freedom of expression.
“By any name, that’s free speech and free speech is the north star of our democracy. It’s foundational, and this decision underlines that no issue of importance can be addressed if the speech about it is stymied, or worse, silenced,” Burke said.
In a statement, CAIR said Amawi heard about the news while she was on the road and pulled to the side and wept, saying “God is great.” The group said she can now go back to work.
“Arabic-speaking schoolchildren in Texas have been deprived of critical services from Bahia Amawi for almost this entire school year because of this unconstitutional law,” said CAIR National Litigation Director Lena Masri. “Today we welcome a victory for the First Amendment.”
A national issue
Pitman’s conclusion says that Texas says it is “far from alone” in its move to “enact” law against BDS, with 25 states passing similar legislation or issuing executive orders restricting boycotts of Israel and with only a handful of legislators voting against HB 89.
“Texas touts these numbers as the statute’s strength. They are, rather, its weakness,” Pitman said, citing a case that says. “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
He said citizens must “tolerate insulting, and even outrageous speech” during public debates.
“They must do so in order to provide ‘adequate breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
CAIR said it is fighting similar measures across the country.
“The First Amendment blocks any effort by state governments or the federal government from forcing their citizens to take sides in the widespread international debate about the relationship between Israel and Palestine,” CAIR trial attorney Carolyn Homer said. “This is a lesson all public servants should remember when considering anti-BDS measures around the country.”
CNN’s Emanuella Grinberg contributed to this report