A Texas school district allegedly fired a children’s speech pathologist because she refused to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel, prompting a First Amendment lawsuit, The Intercept reported on Monday.
The plaintiff, Bahia Amawi, has worked with developmentally disabled, autistic and speech-impaired pupils for the school district – which includes Austin, Texas – for nine years. The district had hired her on a contract basis in 2009, “to provide assessments and support for school children from the county’s growing Arabic-speaking immigrant community,” according to The Intercept, and renewed her contract annually without incident.
However, Texas enacted an anti-BDS law in May 2017, prohibiting contracts with companies that boycott Israel. As a result, The Intercept reported, Amawi’s latest contract, provided to her in August, required her to sign a pledge that she “does not currently boycott Israel,” that she “will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract,” and that she shall refrain from 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 Israeli or in an Israel-controlled territory.”
Amawi, an Austrian-born citizen and mother of four, told The Intercept that she could not “in good conscience” sign the contract. “If I did, I would not only be betraying Palestinians suffering under an occupation that I believe is unjust and thus become complicit in their repression, but I’d also be betraying my fellow Americans by enabling violations of our constitutional rights to free speech and to protest peacefully,” she said.
She subsequently informed her school district supervisor she would not sign the oath. She said the supervisor tried to find a way around the oath but ultimately told her there was no alternative. If she didn’t sign the oath, the district could not legally pay her. Her refusal meant the termination of her contract.
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“I got my master’s in this field and devoted myself to this work because I always wanted to do service for children,” said Amawi, who believes she is the only qualified Arabic speaker to do her job in the district. “It’s vital that early-age assessments of possible speech impairments or psychological conditions be administered by those who understand the child’s first language,” she told the website.
The lawsuit, filed with the U.S. District Court in the Western Texas District, argues that the oath violates her First Amendment right of free speech.
“The Supreme Court has recognized [in Claiborne] that nonviolent boycotts intended to advance civil rights constitute ‘form[s] of speech or conduct that [are] ordinarily entitled to protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments,’” the lawsuit states, referring to a 1982 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that “while states have broad power to regulate economic activities, there is no comparable right to prohibit peaceful political activity such as” boycotts.
According to The Intercept, the language of the anti-BDS bill is so sweeping that even victims of last year’s Hurricane Harvey were told they had to pledge not to boycott Israel in order to receive disaster relief. The author of the bill, Republican Texas State Rep. Phil King, later said the application of the law to hurricane relief was a “misunderstanding.”