Free Speech In Jeopardy Again

I just read an article from The Intercept written by Glenn Greenwald and Ryan Grim (Outlaw Support for Boycott), indicating that it could soon be against the law to promote or participate in a boycott against Israel.  I haven’t paid much attention to The Intercept since their debut in 2014, but given the unbelievable subject matter of the article and the amount of fake news out there, I decided to research the topic further before I allowed myself to experience an aneurysm.  The research is done and I can feel my artery walls stretching.

The article mentions near the end that House Bill 1697 (H.R. 1697) and Senate bill 720 (S 720) are actually attempts to amend the existing Export Administration Act of 1979 and Export-Import Bank Act of 1945.  Those acts already make “…furthering or supporting the boycott of Israel sponsored by the Arab League, and certain other countries…” an offense.  The new bills seemingly want to beef up the Export Administration Act to specifically include boycott efforts originating from the United Nations and to link violation of the acts to existing (but much more harsh), punishments found in the United States Code (50 USC 1705).   What is news to me, then, is that there are currently laws on the books that make it punishable for Americans to engage in boycotts that are “…fostered by international governmental organizations against Israel…”  I have neither the time, the space nor the comprehensive understanding needed to tackle the Arab/Israeli conflict, but I will share what I do know.

Our constitution includes a Bill of Rights, which in its very first amendment states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”  Over the years the Supreme Court has tweaked exactly how far that protection can go, agreeing that fraud, obscenity, speech specifically designed to promote lawlessness or falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater are not covered.  It has also been “firmly decided” that money is a form of speech (see Citizens United vs FEC) when someone wants to support a political idea or a candidate, but apparently withholding ones money is not always protected.

I found laws prohibiting Americans from actively engaging with or supporting some foreign entities, beginning with the Logan Act, which prohibits a private citizen from interacting with another country to negotiate national controversies.  There are also many government imposed sanctions that either prohibit trade with or limit access to banking and/or assets for countries that have fallen short of American ideals (Treasury Department Sanctions).  While such restrictions certainly fly in the face of unbridled capitalism, both our citizenry and our courts have apparently agreed that sometimes principles over-ride profits.

I am unable, however, to find any laws (other than the aforementioned acts), that criminalize a citizen’s decision to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with another country by refusing to conduct business with said country.  Nor can I find evidence of any court challenge to those acts, though it appears the ACLU is now poised to fight the broadened offender list and the increased penalties that would result from these new bills (ACLU Letter to Senators). 

When did we the people, via our representative government and our court system, agree that it was okay to prevent a person from refusing to financially support another country unless we ALL refuse to do so?  And other than showing-up if drafted and paying taxes, what other mandate prohibits a citizen’s inaction?  And why does it appear that this “no boycotting” mandate only applies to Israel?

Since I first became politically aware I have heard it said that Social Security is the third rail of American politics, meaning to mess with it will electrocute you and end your political career.  But if one examines the rhetoric and legislation of the past fifty years, we may find that Israel is really the third rail.  I’m not sure what has enabled that country to obtain such a firm grasp of our country’s testicles, but that grip appears to extend to both political parties and to cross generational lines.  What would South Africa look like today if that government had been successful in hypnotizing U.S. lawmakers into preventing American businesses and citizens from boycotts aimed at ending Apartheid?

Again, I am not attempting to use this space to litigate the issues of the Middle East.  If the majority of our elected officials can continue to get elected while proclaiming that Israel is the only country above reproach and that it must be supported by our government without question, then maybe that attitude is the defacto opinion of the electorate.  There is, however, a small clause within the constitution guaranteeing that if even just one citizen disagrees with the actions of that foreign government, they can not only verbalize their dissatisfaction, but also refuse to support that entity with their disposable income or their adoration.





4 thoughts on “Free Speech In Jeopardy Again

  1. Who on earth sponsored HR 1697 and S 720? (I can look that up). With all of the “important” issues facing them today, this is just another example of GOP-controlled Congress taking advantage of the media focus on Trumpgate to sneak in legislation that the majority of Americans would be appalled at if they understood what/why it was even being considered. Who benefits? Certainly doesn’t sound as though American businesses need to be told who they can/cannot boycott. Israel is the big winner… right?

    1. Thanks Marilyn, and yes, as far as I can tell, Israel is the only winner here. As for who would sponsor such a thing: the biggest heartburn and head scratching come from the bi-partisan support (go to the links for the bills and look at “Co-Sponsors”). Aarrghh!

  2. I guess I haven’t been paying enough attention of late to all of the objectionable bills being passed by our Republican majority, because I certainly missed these. There is a systematic chipping away at our freedoms in Washington right now that just goes on and on. And protest by American citizens seems to be the only defense against it. If that or boycotting is legislated away, they can get away with anything. Thanks for an enlightening blog posting.

    1. Thanks June, but to be clear, while the House bill was submitted by a Republican, the Senate bill was proposed by a Democrat and BOTH appear to have democratic support. It is interesting (scary?) to note that when many of the democratic co-sponsors were asked for comment, they indicated they didn’t know what the questioner was talking about.

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