Federal Judge Says Boycotts Aren't Protected Speech
from the WTAF dept
A federal judge in Arkansas has delivered a truly WTF First Amendment decision related to a state’s anti-Israel-boycott law. The law states that companies contracting with government entities cannot engage in boycotts of Israeli products or services. Those doing so are either forbidden from doing business with the state government or forced to sell their products/services at a substantial discount.
In this case, the Arkansas Times’ steady business relationship with an Arkansas college has been disrupted by the Arkansas law seeking to punish businesses that engage in boycotts of Israel. Every company doing business with Arkansas government entities must sign a certification stating they are not boycotting Israel. The law has been in effect since 2017, but this year the Times refused to sign the required certification. This refusal cost the paper its advertising contract with the school, since the only other option under the boycott law was to sell its services at a mandated 20% discount.
The Times sued with the assistance of the ACLU, seeking to have this law found unconstitutional. So far, the ACLU has managed to get similar laws blocked/rewritten in two other states. The judge in this case, Brian S. Miller, even points to the ACLU’s successful lawsuits, but still manages to come to the opposite — and insane — conclusion that participating in a boycott is not protected speech. From the order [PDF] denying the Arkansas Times’ request for an injunction:
The Times is unlikely to prevail on the merits of its First Amendment claims because it has not demonstrated that a boycott of Israel, as defined by Act 710, is protected by the First Amendment. This finding diverges from decisions recently reached by two other federal district courts. Jordahl, 336 F. Supp. 3d at 1016; Koontz v. Watson, 283 F. Supp. 3d 1007, 1021–22 (D. Kan. 2018).
In Jordahl, the court had this to say about Arizona’s boycott law:
A restriction of one’s ability to participate in collective calls to oppose Israel unquestionably burdens the protected expression of companies wishing to engage in such a boycott…
The type of collective action targeted by the [law] specifically implicates the rights of assembly and association that Americans and Arizonans use ‘to bring about political, social, and economic change.”
In Koontz, the federal court similarly found Kansas’ anti-boycott law unconstitutional:
[T]he Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects the right to participate in a boycott like the one punished by the Kansas law.
None of this matters in this court, where somehow it’s possible to separate the act of boycotting from the speech it represents in order to allow the government to punish companies for expressive acts.
First, a boycott is not purely speech because, after putting aside any accompanying explanatory speech, a refusal to deal, or particular commercial purchasing decisions, do not communicate ideas through words or other expressive media.
Second, such conduct is not “inherently expressive.”
It is highly unlikely that, absent any explanatory speech, an external observer would ever notice that a contractor is engaging in a primary or secondary boycott of Israel. Very few people readily know which types of goods are Israeli, and even fewer are able to keep track of which businesses sell to Israel. Still fewer, if any, would be able to point to the fact that the absence of certain goods from a contractor’s office mean that the contractor is engaged in a boycott of Israel. See id.; c.f. FAIR, 547 U.S. at 66. Instead, an observer would simply believe that the types of products located at the contractor’s office reflect its commercial, as opposed to its political, preferences. In most, if not all cases, a contractor would have to explain to an observer that it is engaging in a boycott for the observer to have any idea that a boycott is taking place.
That’s the legal standard for expressive activity in Arkansas according to Judge Miller: if observers can’t tell what’s happening without additional speech, the government is free to punish companies for choosing not to do business with Israel. In almost every case, though, speech will accompany this act, which means the state government can punish companies’ protected speech by punishing them for the act this court believes can be separated from it.
All a decision like this does is encourage Arkansas companies to lie on their certifications. If the government wants to punish companies for lying, it will have to compel some actually protected speech from them: statements about their boycott of Israel. If no observer (and that apparently includes government entities engaging in business with private contractors) can tell a boycott is or isn’t underway, then the boycott can continue with the government none the wiser — so long as no one makes any statements about it. The government has kind of painted itself into a corner, using paint supplied by an Arkansas judge who should have done much better parsing both the law and the First Amendment.