Seeking to Stop anti-BDS Law, Texas Speech Pathologist Claims Free Speech Infringed

Bahia Amawi’s lawyer tells Haaretz anti-boycott ban in Lone Star State could affect ‘anyone, a fireman, a policeman, a teacher. The law is prohibiting political speech – and that’s a problem’

NEW YORK – A lawsuit filed by a speech pathologist who reportedly lost her job because she refused to sign an oath saying she will not engage in a boycott of Israel could end up protecting other employees in Texas and have major implications on anti-boycott legislation in the United States, her attorney has told Haaretz. 

John Floyd, representing Bahia Amawi, said he intends to file an injunction with a federal judge in Texas that could halt the enforcement of the law, which prohibits state agencies from working with companies and contractors that boycott Israel. The 18-month-old law is an infringement of the constitutional right to free speech, he said. 

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As reported in The Intercept on Monday, Amawi was told she could no longer work in Pflugerville Independent School District, which includes Austin, after she declined to sign a clause in her contract stating that she “does not boycott Israel and will not boycott Israel during the term of this contract.”

The contract also stipulated that Amawi would not engage in any action “that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israel or in an Israel-controlled territory.” 

When she refused to sign the oath, Amawi lost her job. She had spent the past nine years working with developmentally disabled, autistic and speech-impaired elementary school students in Austin. 

Amawi filed a lawsuit against the school district and the state’s attorney on Monday. 

“She is not a radical person or an activist,” Floyd said. “She is someone who is concerned about children. She is concerned about the way some of the Palestinians have been treated. She could not, in good conscience, sign [the oath] because she wanted to be able to speak about this issue, if she ever had to.”

Floyd said it is this aspect of the oath that makes the case a free speech issue. “Amawi would not speak about these issues at work or with the children she is working with,” he said. 

“She would never bring this up, she is a professional. It’s not her job and it wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said. “But this has nothing to do with her job or her performance. This law regulates her speech outside her job. The law is prohibiting her political speech in her private life – and that is the problem.”

The anti BDS-oath is part of legislation enacted in May  2017 by the Texas State Legislature and signed into law two days later by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. It bars contractors working with the state of Texas from supporting a boycott of Israel – yet this is the first reported case of a contractor losing their job for refusing to sign the oath since the law was passed.  

“It could happen to anyone who receives state funding,” Floyd said. “It could just as easily have happened to someone who is providing the meals to the school or fixing the roads. It can apply to a policeman, a fireman, a public school teacher.

“We will file an injunction with a federal judge that will halt the enforcement of the law until the case is over,” Floyd added. “We will be asking the federal judge to enjoin both the application of the statute as to Ms. Amawi and to all contractors throughout the state of Texas.”

It’s still too early to predict how long Amawi’s case might take, although the attorney predicts it might last one to two years. However, the injunction could take place much sooner.

“This particular litigation is not about someone who has hard feelings or any animosity toward people in Israel,” Floyd said. “Free speech is a cherished democratic value and protected by the constitution. It goes all the way back to the founding of this country.”