ACLU Sues Kansas Over Law Against Israel Boycotts

'The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support,' said a teacher rendered unemployable by the law on whose behalf the lawsuit has been filed

A woman holds a sign which reads "Boycott Israel" in front of symbolic coffins while attending a demonstration supporting Palestine, in Berlin August 1, 2014.
Steffi Loos/Reuters

WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union announced on Wednesday that it is filing a federal lawsuit against the state of Kansas over a new law requiring public employees to declare that they do not boycott Israel. The lawsuit will be filed on behalf of a math teacher from the state who, according to the ACLU, boycotts Israeli and international companies that operate in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The teacher, according to the organization's statement, has been employed at her current position for nine years, and is also a teacher trainer. Ahead of the 2017-18 school year, she was asked for the first time to sign a form, in accordance with the "anti-BDS" law recently passed in Kansas. The form requires employees to confirm that they have not participated in a boycott of Israel and, as outlined by the law, confirming otherwise would make them unemployable by the state.

The teacher, Esther Koontz, is a member of the Mennonite Church in the U.S., and says that her decision not to buy products manufactured in the settlements is based on her religious beliefs. She refused to sign the form, and as a result, could not participate as a trainer in programs for teachers organized by the state of Kansas. 

The Kansas law is similar to "anti-BDS" laws passed by a number of states over the last few years. The ACLU claims that such laws violated the First Amendment by harming free speech. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from using its financial leverage to impose an ideological litmus test,” said Brian Hauss, an attorney with the civil rights organization. 

He added that "this law is an unconstitutional attempt by the government to silence one side of a public debate by coercing people not to express their beliefs, including through participation in a political boycott." The ACLU stated that it does not take a position, as an organization, on the issue of boycotting Israel or any other country, but that choosing to engage in such a boycott is a right protected by the First Amendment.

The teacher herself explained that "you don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights. The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support. I’m disappointed that I can’t be a math trainer for the state of Kansas because of my political views." 

The left-wing organization Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS measures, expressed support for the ACLU's lawsuit, saying that, "The Kansas legislation requires state contractors to sign a statement certifying that they do not boycott Israel or 'territories under its jurisdiction,' including companies that do business in Israel or the illegal settlements. Not only does that mean that individuals are being pressured by the government to give up their right to express a political opinion, but it also means that the U.S. government is extending its political protection to Israel’s illegal settlements."

Another statement for support came from the New Israel Fund's CEO, Daniel Sokatch, who said that while his organization doesn't support BDS, it opposes attempts to hurt free speech in order to protect the settlements: "Make no mistake: this legislation is an effort to put a gag on those who oppose settlements. It is an extension of Israeli settler policy designed to ensure that there will never be a two-state solution. It harms Israel, and it harms fundamental freedoms in America."