Bill at MN Senate barring anti-Israel contractors draws unease

The new bill, which awaits a Senate vote, is against state agencies contracting with businesses boycotting Israel.

by Rilyn Eischens

A controversial bill moving through the Minnesota Legislature would prohibit state agencies from contracting with businesses that boycott Israel.

Authors of the bill, which awaits a Senate vote after the House passed it in February, say it aims to prevent discrimination, but First Amendment advocates have raised concerns that it might limit speech rights.

But Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he’s not sure how the bill, if passed, would apply to the University of Minnesota.

“We’re probably going to have to address that before we put the bill in its final position,” he said.

Limmer said the growing boycott, divestment, sanctions movement in general, rather than any specific events, prompted him to author the bill.

In the House, the bill was passed after a phrase clarifying that it would impact Minnesota State Colleges and Universities was removed in the final edit.

Multiple representatives listed as authors did not return calls for comment. A spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus said the chief author, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, declined to comment about why the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities were removed and how the bill would apply the University.

Advocates of the BDS movement say it’s a Palestinian-led effort to pressure Israel for equality. The state of Israel says the movement seeks to delegitimize the Jewish State.

“Those of us who look at that as a discrimination against a certain … group, we felt that was important to at least protect that relationship from discrimination when it comes to business vendors,” Limmer said.

The proposed legislation would prohibit the state from contracting for $1,000 or more with a vendor that discriminates — defined as taking action on the basis of national origin— against Israel or Israeli people and businesses.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, which has no stance on the BDS movement, has issued numerous statements against the proposal, citing First Amendment concerns.

Despite several revisions, the legislation could still infringe upon free speech rights, said Minnesota ACLU Legislative Director Ben Feist.

“[The bill] has now gotten a little bit difficult for people to understand because, as we would say, it [has become] constitutionally vague and overbroad,” he said. “Then you get First Amendment problems because people might limit their speech, not knowing just how far they can legally go.”

Prohibiting businesses from boycotting Israel if they want to contract with the state would be unconstitutional, Feist said.

Still, Limmer says the bill only addresses discriminatory business decisions and not speech. He added a clause in the bill stating that the legislation wouldn’t prevent vendors from “engaging in free speech or expression protected under the First Amendment.”

“Everyone is entitled to freedom of speech, but they do not have a right to discriminate,” he said.

These provisions are called “savings clauses” and won’t change whether a bill actually infringes on speech rights, said Adam Steinbaugh, a reporter for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“The proponents of the bill want to stop very specific conduct, and I’m not sure how they could achieve that in a way that doesn’t have some First Amendment red flags,” Feist said.

If passed, the legislation could apply to paid speakers on college campuses, Steinbaugh said, meaning speakers who are boycotting Israel either couldn’t charge over $1,000 or couldn’t be contracted to appear on campuses.

This could limit academic freedom and freedom of speech because anyone who is advocating a boycott of Israel is likely engaged in boycott or other protest against that nation, he said.

Others are more enthusiastic about the bill’s potential to limit discrimination against Israel.

“We have these kinds of laws in place where we say the state won’t contract with companies that discriminate against LGBT people or against people of color,” said University student Sami Rahamim, chair of the Israel Committee for Minnesota Hillel and member of the Hillel International board of directors. “If a [state-contracted] company wants to boycott an entire country … that is discrimination.”