Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Their recent legislative push stands in stark contrast to repeated attempts by other members of Congress to stamp out constitutionally protected boycotts of Israel. (Photo: Erik McGregor)

Their recent legislative push stands in stark contrast to repeated attempts by other members of Congress to stamp out constitutionally protected boycotts of Israel. (Photo: Erik McGregor)

With the Right to Boycott Under Attack, Some Members of Congress Are Pushing Back

Exercising one’s right to boycott is quintessentially American, and that reminder was clearly due

Manar WaheedKate Ruane

More than 250 million Americans, some 78 percent of the population, live in states with anti-boycott laws or policies. With the right to boycott under attack across the United States, some members of Congress are pushing back against these dangerous and unrelenting attacks.

Last week, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), along with Representatives John Lewis (D-GA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), introduced a resolution reaffirming the First Amendment right to participate in political boycotts as grounded in America’s history dating back to the days of Samuel Adams and the Boston Tea Party.

Their recent legislative push stands in stark contrast to repeated attempts by other members of Congress to stamp out constitutionally protected boycotts of Israel.

These attempts include the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rob Portman (R-OH), and Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Juan Vargas (D-CA) introduced in the previous Congress. The bill would have banned participating in political boycotts of countries friendly to the United States when the boycott is called for by an international organization, such as the United Nations.

The bill would have carried a penalty of up to $1 million for engaging in the First Amendment right to boycott. And, believe it or not, that’s an improvement. Earlier versions of the bill had included jail time. The bill generated some key opposition and died in Congress last year, but rumor is, this bill might be reintroduced again in this Congress.

Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) also managed to push the Combating BDS Act through the Senate as a part of a larger bill. That bill encourages states to create laws that three federal courts have now blocked as unconstitutional. Those laws violate the First Amendment by penalizing businesses, such as our client The Arkansas Times, and individuals who refuse to sign a pledge certifying that they do not and will not engage in a constitutionally-protected boycott of Israel. Penalties often come in the form of denying government contracts to those who dare to disagree with their government.

Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) strongly argued that the anti-BDS legislation was unconstitutional, but the Senate passed it anyway. The bill has not gotten a vote in the House, although Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) has tried to find ways to get the House to consider it. The members of Congress who voted for or continue to support the various anti-boycott bills seem to have forgotten that the right to boycott is a proud part of this country’s constitutional tradition.

As Reps. Lewis, Omar, and Tlaib’s First Amendment resolution reminds these members with selective memory, Americans boycotted Imperial Japan in 1937 in an attempt to slow the country’s progress in World War II. Americans boycotted Nazi Germany in response to the dehumanization of Jewish people that led up to the Holocaust. Many Americans also led the boycott campaign against South Africa in protest of apartheid.

Exercising one’s right to boycott is quintessentially American, and that reminder was clearly due. Rep. Omar has been attacked on numerous occasions under the premise of anti-Semitism for advocating for political boycotts of Israel due to her position on human rights. And Senator Rubio singled out Rep. Tlaib as anti-Semitic for her criticism of the Combating BDS Act as antithetical to First Amendment principles. Sen. Rubio, notably, did not similarly lambast other critics of the bill for voicing similar criticism.

It’s no surprise that Reps. Omar and Tlaib took action by introducing this resolution. It’s also not surprising that Rep. Lewis is backing this resolution. He may be a long-time supporter of Israel, and he may not support BDS, but Rep. Lewis is also a long-time civil rights leader and one of the strongest protectors in Congress of the fundamental right to protest. While his views on Israel may stand in contrast to the views of his co-sponsors, all three are united in support of free speech, expression, and the right to boycott.

At the ACLU, we do not take a position on BDS or on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We do however believe strongly in the Constitution and the rights described by this resolution. The right to political boycott is a crucial part of our First Amendment and an important tool for advocacy in the pursuit of equality both here and abroad. The legislation in Congress that seeks to silence this speech is contrary to our Constitution and the rights of all people living in America. The courts know so – it’s about time Congress does as well. 

Manar Waheed

Manar Waheed

Manar Waheed is the Legislative and Advocacy Counsel for the ACLU.

Kate Ruane

Kate Ruane is a Senior Legislative Counsel at ACLU.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Truss' Tories Plan to Slash Public Spending While Clinging to Chaos-Causing Tax Cuts

"When the IMF tells you, 'hang on guys, this is going to be so bad for inequality it needs a rethink,' you've got a serious problem," one U.K. activist said of the new mini-budget.

Jessica Corbett ·

Sanders, Kaine Hail US Senate's Passage of Brazil Election Resolution

"It is important for the people of Brazil to know we're on their side, on the side of democracy," said Sen. Bernie Sanders. "With passage of this resolution, we are sending that message."

Brett Wilkins ·

Highland Park Victims Sue Gun-Maker, Stores Over Negligence and Deceptive Practices

Lawyers argued that the "shooter was the type of a young consumer susceptible to Smith & Wesson's deceptive and unfair marketing, and was enabled by his father."

Julia Conley ·

NC Dems Plead for Cash as Beasley Deadlocked With GOP Opponent in Decisive US Senate Race

Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley has a one-point lead, but Trump-backed U.S. Rep. Ted Budd is getting more support from the Republican Party.

Kenny Stancil ·

'Yeah, Right': Pentagon Report Claiming US Military Killed Just 12 Civilians Last Year Met With Skepticism

"Once again the confirmed civilian casualty count is below what communities on the ground are reporting," lamented Emily Tripp, director of the monitor group Airwars.

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo