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February 4, 2014
ASA Condemns Attempts by NY State Legislature to Suppress Boycotts of Israel as Unlawful Infringement on Free Speech
On Tuesday, January 28th, the New York State Senate passed a bill (S.6438) targeting the American Studies Association (ASA) because of its recent resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education. Yesterday, February 3rd, the New York State Assembly was scheduled to begin discussions on a similar bill (A.8392) that, if passed, could reach Governor Cuomo’s desk shortly thereafter. This legislation severely threatens free speech and academic freedom.
The New York legislature’s anti-boycott bills prohibit colleges and universities from using state aid to fund academic groups or associations that have passed resolutions or taken official actions to promote boycotts against higher education institutions in countries where the New York Board of Regents charters institutions, which includes Israel, Lebanon, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. The bill also prohibits a college or university from using state funds to pay membership dues to those associations or to reimburse travel or lodging for an employee attending any meeting of such an association.
This legislation would impose restrictions on academic freedom, represent an assault on free speech and professional activity, and set a dangerous precedent. We join the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild—New York City Chapter, and Jewish Voice for Peace in believing that, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the ASA’s specific boycott or with the use of academic boycotts in general, this legislation must be opposed. We are especially alarmed that faculty and students at public universities and colleges across the state would bear the financial burden of this test, a de facto assault on their right to participate in their professional association. In addition, these bills, unlike the ASA boycott itself, penalize individual faculty and students who do not support the academic boycott or do not wish to take a public stand one way or another.
The sponsors of these bills claim that a boycott against Israeli institutions of higher education is discriminatory and amounts to anti-Semitism. We reject the claim that criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism and we strongly oppose the attempt to silence criticism of Israeli and U.S. policies with this accusation.
The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects the right to engage in a boycott aimed at bringing about social and political change. It protects this form of expression even when the positions taken are controversial. We must guard against unwarranted censorship. If this legislation became law the precedent would be far-reaching, effectively undermining the autonomy of faculty and professional bodies to make political speech without threat of reprisal from government officials.
Regardless of one’s position on this boycott or on academic boycotts in general, this legislation threatens our First Amendment right as scholars and as professional associations to take positions on matters of public concern. If passed the precedent would be far reaching, effectively undermining the autonomy of faculty and professional associations to freely participate in public life without threat of arbitrary reprisal from government officials.
We call on the New York State Assembly and the Governor to reject these bills and the dangerous precedent they set for legislating opinion.
In December 2013, a majority of voters of the American Studies Association membership voted to endorse a resolution to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education in protest of the Israeli occupation and Israel’s discriminatory laws and policies towards Palestinian students and scholars in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and inside Israel. The boycott is limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions. The boycott does not target individual Israeli scholars and moreover recognizes the divergence of opinions among our own membership, leaving individuals free to act according to their conscience and convictions.
New York Times editorial, February 3, 2014, “A Chill on Speech”:
Anti-Boycott Bill Threatens Academic Freedom
Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyers Guild detailed analysis and letter:
Jewish Voice for Peace Action Alert:
Posted: February 4, 2014, Academic Boycott