EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy in Focus.
In 1966, the NAACP of Claiborne County, Mississippi, launched a boycott of several white-owned local businesses on the basis of racial discrimination.
It was so impactful that the local hardware store filed a lawsuit against the individuals and organizations who coordinated the boycott. After 10 long years of litigation, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in favor of the white businesses and ordered the NAACP to pay for all their lost earnings.
Years later, in 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled 8-0 to overturn the lower court’s decision, on the basis that nonviolent boycotts are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. In announcing the unanimous decision, Justice John Paul Stevens said, “One of the foundations of our society is the right of individuals to combine with other persons in pursuit of a common goal by lawful means.”
That should have been the end of it. But now, Americans’ right to boycott is under attack once again—thanks to a vicious anti-boycott bill making its way through the Senate.
In particular, it appears to target the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS is an international movement calling on individuals, institutions, and governments to boycott Israeli products until it ends its occupation of Palestinian lands. The boycott is explicitly nonviolent and is supported by activists, celebrities, faith-based groups, and political and social-justice organizations around the world.
The proposed Israel Anti-Boycott Act would make it a felony for Americans to support BDS, with a penalty of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.
Unfortunately, the bill enjoys bipartisan support: 32 Republicans and 15 Democrats are currently signed on as co-sponsors, including party leaders like Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Ted Cruz (R-TX). In response, the ACLU issued a letter urging members of the Senate to oppose the bill based on its “direct violation of the First Amendment.” (Following the publication of the ACLU’s letter, several members of Congress agreed to review their sponsorship, and Kirsten Gillibrand [D-NY] became the first senator to officially withdraw sponsorship.)