Professors Can Sue American Studies Association Over Israel Boycott, U.S. Federal Court Rules

The ASA voted to approve the boycott in 2013, blocking collaborations with Israeli schools, scholars or academic ambassadors.

BDS supporters protest in Paris, October 31, 2012.
Jacques Brinon / AP

A U.S. federal court ruled on Friday that four college professors can sue the American Studies Association over its academic boycott of Israel.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the professors’ lawsuit, a case called Bronner v. Duggan, can go forward after the American Studies Association, or ASA, asked the court to dismiss it.

The court rejected ASA’s argument that going forward with the lawsuit infringes on its First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit charges the ASA with violating the District of Columbia law governing tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. That rule limits a nonprofit from acting beyond its chartered purposes, which in the case of the ASA, according to the plaintiffs lawyers, includes promoting knowledge and the “strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad.”

The four plaintiffs, who are longtime members of the association, also charge that the boycott violates the group’s internal rules. They are American studies professors Simon Bronner, Michael Rockland, Michael Barton and Charles Kupfer.

In December 2013, the ASA membership approved the boycott with two-thirds of the 1,252 members who voted in support. At the time of the vote, there were 3,853 eligible voters, meaning one third of the membership participated. The boycott is not binding on members and targets institutions, not individuals.

According to the ASA website, the boycott would be "a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others), or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law."

The judge dismissed the lawsuit’s claim that a boycott of another country is outside the scope of ASA’s charter.

At least four U.S. universities withdrew their membership in the association following the vote — Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College and Penn State Harrisburg — and at least 55 American universities and colleges rejected the boycott resolution.

Since the ASA boycott vote, the American Anthropological Association and the Modern Language Association have both failed to pass boycott measures.