ACLU Sues Texas AG, Universities Over Law Barring Anti-Israel Boycotts
The civil-liberties org takes aim at Texas schools and officials over a state law it says forces people ‘to choose between their livelihoods and their First Amendment rights.’
One day after a Texas elementary-school speech pathologist claimed she lost her job after refusing to sign a pro-Israel oath, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed its own lawsuit, claiming the state’s anti-boycott law violates the Constitution by forcing workers to choose between their job and their First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday night in Austin, alleged that current law requiring contractors to certify they will not boycott Israel or Israeli-controlled territories violates the First Amendment. The complaint named as defendants State Attorney General Ken Paxton, two school districts, and two universities.
“This lawsuit is about our fundamental First Amendment rights,” Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “Our goal is for the courts to declare this law unconstitutional so people do not have to go through political and ideological litmus test just to get a state contract.”
The four plaintiffs participating in the ACLU’s case—a college student, a freelance writer, a Ph.D candidate at Rice University, and a local radio reporter—said they “all either lost contracting opportunities because they refused to sign the No Boycott of Israel certification or signed the certification at the expense of their First Amendment rights.”
“All four plaintiffs in this case were put in different situations of having to bargain between obtaining work or satisfying their First Amendment rights,” Saldivar said.
John Pluecker, a freelance writer and translator, was already working on translating an art essay for the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston when he was confronted with the new anti-boycott rules.
“Pluecker did not sign the contract. Instead, he crossed out the provision and initialed next to it to indicate his disapproval of that provision in the contract,” the lawsuit explained. “Pluecker then submitted to UH a copy of the contract with the crossed out and initialed No Boycott of Israel certification, indicating he did not agree with this provision.”
When a museum representative contacted him to sign a new contract, this time without any redactions, Pluecker refused again and “was forced to forgo payment for the translation work he had already begun.”
“It felt like a line I was not willing to cross,” Pluecker told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “I have a long relationship with the University of Houston and while my former colleagues were supportive of my decision to not sign the provision, at the end there was nothing they could do.”
He added: “I have been vocal about my beliefs regarding this provision for a while but this does affect my livelihood. I don’t know if people were planning to hire me at the university or elsewhere and didn’t because they knew they couldn’t contract me.”
George Hale, another plaintiff, has been a contract journalist for KETR a radio station broadcasted through Texas A&M University System, since 2016.
This spring, Hale noticed the new “anti-BDS law went into effect last year and resulted in a clause” that showed up in his contract “with NPR's northeast Texas member station,” he wrote in a Facebook post about the lawsuit.
Despite his known political leanings, he signed the certification in order to keep his job and his work on an “ongoing investigative project” that “he did not feel that he could quit midway.”
“In George’s case, he was put in the unfortunate situation of putting his work above his rights,” Saldivar said.
The other two plaintiffs are Obinna Dennar, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University who says she forfeited payment for judging a high-school debate tournament rather than sign the certification; and Zachary Abdelhadi, a student at Texas State University, who also says he had to forgo high-school debate judging opportunities.
Last year, the same Texas law caused uproar after citizens seeking hurricane relief were first asked to sign an anti-boycott pledge. State officials at the time denied withholding aid if the providing wasn’t signed, and said local authorities simply misinterpreted the new law.
“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression,” Andre Segura, Legal Director of the ACLU in Texas, said in a statement at the time.
The ACLU’s Tuesday lawsuit double downs on elementary-school speech pathologist Bahia Amawi’s suit this week against Paxton and the school district that ended her contractual job because she would not pledge loyalty to Israel.
“She had a yearly contract with Pflugerville Independent School District and this year, her contract has new language about not boycotting Israel,” Carolyn Homer, Bahia’s attorney at the Council of American-Islamic Relations, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “She told the school ‘I can’t sign this’ and the school basically said ‘well it’s mandatory so if you can’t sign it, we can’t pay you.”
Homer said her client, like the ACLU, seeks to strike down the Texas law completely and have the new provision removed from every contract in the state. Over the past year, federal courts have frozen the implementation of similar versions of the law in Arizona and Kansas, citing constitutional concerns brought by the ACLU.
“Currently 25 states that have a form of this law, but it has taken off in the last 4 years or two and they are being passed by red and blue states,” Homer explained. “America has a lot of political support of Israel.”