Revised Israel Anti-Boycott Act Still Threatens Free Speech, ACLU Says

ACLU says the bill continues to pose a risk to free speech, an accusation that its supporters in Congress and in pro-Israel organizations strongly reject

FILE PHOTO: Protesters march behind a banner of the BDS organization in France, June 13, 2015.
George Robert/AP

The American Civil Liberties Union announced on Tuesday that it still opposes the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, a piece of legislation aimed at curtailing international boycotts of Israel and the settlements, even after certain amendments were made to the legislation's language following earlier criticism by the leading civil rights organization.

According to the ACLU, the bill, in its updated form, continues to pose a risk to free speech, an accusation that its supporters in Congress and in pro-Israel organizations strongly reject. 

The Anti-Boycott Act was introduced last year by a bi-partisan group of legislators, led by Democratic Senator Ben Cardin and Republican Senator Rob Portman.

The ACLU came out strongly against the bill, warning that its language could lead to severe penalties on American citizens who express support for boycotting Israel or its settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The ACLU criticism convinced at least one prominent Democratic Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, to retract her support for the bill. Other Democratic lawmakers also criticized it. 

FILE PHOTO: Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, discusses his support for the GOP tax bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 28, 2017.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Cardin and Portman originally rejected the ACLU's criticism. They claimed that the penalties mentioned in the bill won't apply to American citizens that choose to boycott Israel or the settlements because of politics, religious or personal reasons.

Instead, they said, only corporations that knowingly take part in a boycott orchestrated by an international body such as the UN, could pay fines or face other penalties under the new bill. 

Last week, however, just before the opening of the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, Senators Cardin and Portman released a joint statement about amending the bill, in light of the criticism it had drawn from the ACLU and other civil rights groups.

Cardin was particularly receiving strong criticism from within the Democratic Party for his leading role in promoting the bill. 

In their statement, the two senators said that among the changes in the bill there would be "legislative affirmation that nothing in the Act should be construed to diminish or infringe on any right protected under the First Amendment," and added that "a clarification that a person’s noncommercial speech or other noncommercial expressive activity cannot be used as evidence to prove a violation." 

The ACLU said on Tuesday that while there have been "several significant improvements" as a result of a "sincere effort" by the senators, the organization still views the bill as "overreaching" and that it harms "a core political expression."

The ACLU also said that "the bill's fundamental purpose violates the First Amendment," which is the main reason the organization continues to oppose it. 

It's unclear yet how the ACLU's position will impact the next stages of debate over the bill.

The ACLU's original opposition slowed down the bill's progress, and eventually led Cardin and Portman to offer their amendments.

AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups are interested in promoting the legislation with a clear bi-partisan consensus, mainly because they are concerned over growing support for BDS and boycotts against settlements within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. 

FILE PHOTO: Senator Ben Cardin, D-MD, speaks during a Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing for Alex Azar, in Washington, January 9, 2018.
Bloomberg