Lee Clasper-Torch and William P. Aldrich: New Israel law an attack on speech
By Lee Clasper-Torch and William P. Aldrich
Posted Aug. 16, 2016 at 5:17 PM
Rhode Island residents may be surprised to learn that state lawmakers have passed a bill that significantly curbs freedom of speech and conscience. The right to decide how to spend and invest our money is one of the most cherished freedoms Americans enjoy. When we admire a company, we buy its products; when a company pollutes our rivers or lies to consumers, we switch brands. Similarly, when a country violates human rights or acts in ways that run counter to international law, we can decide not to buy its products. The power of the purse can be a strong incentive for companies and nations to act responsibly and justly. Yet this basic freedom is threatened by a new Rhode Island law.
Rhode Island House Bill 7736, signed into law by Gov. Gina Raimondo, was sponsored by individuals and groups seeking to limit principled buying and investment decisions related to Israel. This House measure was disconcertingly passed by the Senate on the very last day of the legislative session with no companion Senate bill and, disturbingly, no Senate hearing — disabling senators from fully vetting and discussing the bill’s implications.
Promoted as an “anti-discrimination measure,” it would actually deny state contracts to any businesses or entities that refused to carry or buy Israeli products, even if those products are actually made in illegal settlements the United States opposes. As a result, if a manufacturer hopes to do business with our state, it is prohibited from seeking an alternative supplier in another country if it discovers components it orders from Israel are actually made in settlements in the occupied territories. Ironically, it legislates the disqualification (boycotting) of companies and entities that seek to exercise their First Amendment right of boycott.
To disguise its true intent of supporting Israel’s policies regarding its occupation of Palestinian lands, the bill says that no company with state contracts may boycott any nation or its products if that nation is a member of the World Trade Organization. Countries such as Rwanda, China, and Bangladesh are on that list, and all have been accused of human rights violations. If there is another Tiananmen Square Massacre, or if another poorly constructed Bangladesh factory collapses, killing thousands, businesses will, under this law, not be able to switch suppliers from companies associated with these abuses because only economic motivation for such decisions will be allowed. Since goods produced in substandard factories or in heavily subsidized Israeli settlements are cheaper than those produced by American or European workers, these human rights violators will always have the advantage.
Supporters of this bill allege that the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to end Israel’s proven human rights abuses is motivated by anti-Semitism, even though Jewish critics of those abuses are among the leaders of this movement. Indeed, Jewish Rhode Islanders joined church representatives and the American Civil Liberties Union in asking Governor Raimondo not to sign this bill. Over 60 Rhode Island churches belong to denominations that have enacted boycott or divestment measures to end Israel’s occupation of land beyond its internationally recognized borders. All of these denominations are staunch critics of anti-Semitism, and defenders of Israel’s right to exist. They also support an organization’s right to choose how its money will be spent.
A May 2016 article in the Harvard Law Review stated categorically: “Supreme Court precedents make clear that attempts to disqualify contractors for support of BDS … are foreclosed by the First Amendment.” In addition to being a violation of the constitutional protection of free speech, this bill is simply bad for the state’s economy. Rhode Island, which has a reputation for being unfriendly to business, unfortunately now penalizes principled decisions about sourcing of products and it constrains business owners and other entities from acting according to their conscience.
Our state was founded precisely as a refuge for such people. Roger Williams called it “a shelter for persons distressed of conscience.” He would have trouble recognizing that state today.
Lee Clasper-Torch is a member of the Advocacy and Justice Commission of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. William P. Aldrich is treasurer of United Methodist Kairos Response.