Texas AG, universities face suit challenging anti-BDS law

American Civil Liberties Union of Texas says the law forces people to choose between their First Amendment rights and their livelihoods

In this June 22, 2017 file photo, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
In this June 22, 2017 file photo, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks at a news conference in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

DALLAS (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas on Tuesday filed a lawsuit over a state law requiring contractors to certify that they do not boycott Israel or Israel-controlled territories, arguing the law forces people to choose between their First Amendment rights and their livelihoods.

The ACLU says the law went into effect last year and that similar requirements appear in more than a dozen states but still violate First Amendment protections. State Attorney General Ken Paxton, along with two school districts and two universities, are listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the four plaintiffs bringing the suit have either lost “contracting opportunities” because they declined to sign the certification, or they signed “at the expense” of their First Amendment rights. One plaintiff lost two service contracts from a university, and another was forced to forfeit payment for judging a debate tournament tied to a school district, according to the suit.

The suit follows a speech language pathologist’s lawsuit this week against Paxton and a school district over the law. According to the earlier suit, the woman was forced to end her contractual relationship with the district because she would not sign the certification.

According to a Monday report in The Intercept, Bahia Amawi filed the First Amendment suit in a Texas federal court, in a bid to have the state law struck down and the anti-BDS pledge removed from the school district’s employment contracts.

Texas speech pathologist Bahia Amawi, who filed a federal lawsuit after her school district refused to renew her contract unless she signed a pro-Israel oath. (YouTube screenshot)

Amawi worked with the local Arabic-speaking community at the Pflugerville Independent School District since 2009, on a contract basis. She told the news site that the district renewed her contract each year without incident, but when she received the documents for the 2018-19 school year in August, Amawi said it included a new clause requiring that she “not boycott Israel during the term of the contract,” and refrain from any action “that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israel, or in an Israel-controlled territory.”

Amawi, who is of Palestinian descent, told The Intercept that she could not sign the new contract “in good conscience.”

As a result, the Pflugerville school district refused to renew her contract. Amawi called it “baffling” that a US law would “protect another country’s economy” over the constitutional free speech rights of US citizens.

Texas is one of dozens of US states that have enacted legislation forbidding the state from contracting with anyone who supports a boycott of Israel. Texas adopted its anti-BDS law in 2017, with Governor Greg Abbott saying at the signing ceremony that “any anti-Israel policy is an anti-Texas policy.”

Later that year, the law came under heavy criticism, after residents in a north Texas town said they were asked to certify that they do not support Israel boycotts in order to receive federal assistance after Hurricane Harvey.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott signing his state’s anti-BDS bill at a Jewish community center in Austin, May 2, 2017. (Office of the Texas Governor)

Tuesday’s lawsuit also asks the court to declare that the certification requirement violates both the First Amendment and 14th Amendment.

“We can’t stay silent when states are violating the First Amendment in this way,” said ACLU staff attorney Vera Eidelman. She said the ACLU has sued three other times over similar laws.

In recent years, some 26 US states have passed anti-BDS legislation that prohibits the state from working with entities that boycott Israel, though none have passed measures making participating in a boycott of Israel illegal.

TOI Staff contributed to this report

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