Ailts: Israel dissenters silenced with new law

The law is intended to limit discrimination, but its potential consequences are far-reaching.

Ellen Ailts

Beginning July 1, a bill that bans state vendors from boycotting Israel was enacted as law in Minnesota.

The law bans the state of Minnesota, including colleges and universities, from contracting with vendors boycotting Israel, requiring anyone who enters a contract worth more than $1,000 with the state to certify they would not engage in discrimination against Israel.

Besides regulating foreign commerce, a power which is supposed to lie solely with Congress, the law unabashedly infringes upon First Amendment rights of expression, assembly and association.

Vendors are now coerced into surrendering their First Amendment rights as a condition of doing business with the state of Minnesota.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, who introduced the bill, has said that it was intended as an anti-discrimination measure, yet consequentially other groups are now discriminated against with the support of the state. The law specifically targets supporters of the Palestinian-led nonviolent protest group BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), which seeks to end international support for Israeli policies regarding the West Bank settlements.

The University of Minnesota has already had run-ins with the group, notably last year when the Minnesota Student Association voted to remove a BDS resolution from the agenda, rather than debate or vote on it. MSA also passed an amended version of a BDS resolution regarding divestment from companies complicit in human rights violations, sponsored by the pro-Palestine group UMN Divest, removing any references to specific corporations and countries, including Israel, results which UMN Divest protested.

Peaceful boycotts should be allowed and protected by the government, not marginalized and criminalized. No matter your opinion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the individuals within the BDS movement should be allowed to exercise their First Amendment rights, just like anyone else. Imposing regulations to suppress the voices of these individuals will only serve to fan the flames of their anger.

Minnesota’s ACLU chapter staunchly opposed the bill and members of the Jewish community testified against the bill, arguing that the BDS is not anti-Semitic. The law specifically included Minnesota State colleges and universities in its definition of state agencies, which could lead to more conflicts regarding freedom of speech, since speech can be construed to be a form of discrimination.

Many public intellectuals on college campuses advocate for boycotting Israel, as well as potential speakers and lecturers, who are often legally treated as vendors by universities, so students and faculty alike are now limited in who they can invite to speak if Minnesota legislators decide to apply this law to campus speech.

When the government is attempting to suppress free speech, we should recognize the ramifications of such actions. To be forced to conform to a certain political stance or else be deemed criminal is inherently unconstitutional and authoritarian. This could easily catalyze a domino effect regarding how the government chooses to silence dissenters in the future, depending upon which groups are most politically advantageous to support — a potential consequence that shouldn’t be looked upon lightly by anyone who recognizes the importance of free speech.