"Absolutely Unconscionable': In Post-Harvey Texas, No Relief Funds for Critics of Israel

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"Absolutely Unconscionable': In Post-Harvey Texas, No Relief Funds for Critics of Israel

Called an "egregious violation of the First Amendment" by the ACLU, Texas city won't approve hurricane relief grantees who participate in non-violent boycott over Israeli government's crimes and abuses

flooding in Texas

The communities along Texas's Gulf Coast were devasted by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy/Flickr/cc)

Civil liberties advocates are denouncing a decision by a Texas city to require applicants for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds to sign a statement certifying that they are not currently boycotting Israel, and will not participate future protests.

Although the hurricane devastated the entire Houston metro area with record rainfall and destructive flooding, a local television news station reported in early September that "damage in Dickinson may be the worst of Harvey," with more than 7,000 homes and 88 businesses "significantly damaged."

The city of Dickinson, located southeast of Houston, recently posted to its website an application for hurricane repair grants from donations made toward rebuilding efforts.

However, individuals and businesses submitting applications (pdf) for the funding must sign a contract affirming that "the applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this agreement."

Dickinson's attorney reportedly told a local television station that the city is merely enforcing a Texas law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May, that "prohibits all state agencies from contracting with, and certain public funds from investing in, companies that boycott Israel," according to the governor's website.

Critics, including the ACLU, are condemning not only the city's requirement but also Texas's anti-protest law—and similiar measures enacted across the U.S. and under consideration in Congress—as violations of constitutional free speech rights.

"It is absolutely unconscionable for state and local governments to impose political litmus tests on disaster relief funds for people devastated by Hurricane Harvey."
—Brian Hauss, ACLU

"Dickinson's requirement is an egregious violation of the First Amendment, reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths requiring Americans to disavow membership in the Communist party and other forms of 'subversive' activity," said ACLU of Texas legal director Andre Segura.

"The First Amendment protects Americans' right to boycott," Segura added, "and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression."

Last week, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Kansas law that similarly bars state contractors from participating in protests of Israel.

"These bills and laws vary in numerous respects," ACLU attorney Brian Hauss wrote recently for Haaretz, "but they share a common goal of scaring people away people from participating in boycotts meant to protest Israeli government policies, including what are known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign."

"Like the law we challenged in Kansas, Texas's law clearly violates the First Amendment," Hauss told The Intercept. 

"It is absolutely unconscionable for state and local governments to impose political litmus tests on disaster relief funds for people devastated by Hurricane Harvey," he added. "The government should not be denying disaster relief funds based on people's political beliefs."

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