Court declares anti-BDS law in State of Georgia unconstitutional

A district court delivered the judgement on a case filed by journalist Abby Martin who was not allowed to speak at an event at Georgia Southern University after she refused to sign an undertaking agreeing to distance herself from the BDS movement

May 25, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch
Photo: Courtesy CODEPINK via ACLU

In a major setback to Zionist extremists in the United States, a federal judge ruled that a law in the State of Georgia against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is unconstitutional. On Monday, May 24, the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia released a ruling on a petition filed by journalist and filmmaker Abby Martin.

The petition was filed by Martin, along with the State chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF), against the State of Georgia and the University System of Georgia in February 2020. The petition was prompted by Martin not being allowed to speak at a literary event at Georgia Southern University after she refused to sign an undertaking agreeing to distance herself from the BDS movement.

According to a law passed by Georgia in 2016, independent contractors to State-run or State-funded institutions like the Georgia Southern University have to sign a pledge that they will not participate in any boycott of Israel in cases where the transaction is of USD 1,000 and above. Martin was invited to deliver the keynote address in February during the 2020 International Critical Media Literacy Conference and was to be paid an honorarium of USD 1,000 by the university, along with costs of travel and accommodation.

Judge Mark Cohen, in the 29-page judgement, said that the law “prohibits inherently expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment, burdens Martin’s right to free speech, and is not narrowly tailored to further a substantial state interest.”

“Even assuming that Georgia’s interest in furthering foreign policy goals regarding relations with Israel is a substantial state interest, Defendants (Georgia state and the state university system) fail to explain how Martin’s advocacy of a boycott of Israel has any bearing on Georgia’s ability to advance foreign policy goals with Israel,” the judgement added.

“I am thrilled at the judge’s decision to strike down this law,” Martin said in a statement released on Monday, pointing out that her constitutional rights were restricted “on behalf of a foreign government, which flies in the face of the principles of freedom and democracy.”

Martin’s case was among the first legal challenges to an anti-BDS law in the US, and the ruling is expected to have an impact on other similar laws in 25 States. The ruling, though, is not the first to find an anti-BDS law unconstitutional.

In February this year, a federal appeals court reversed a lower court ruling on a challenge raised by the newspaper, Arkansas Times, against an Arkansas State law, barring contracts with businesses engaged in the boycott of Israel. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit had found the law in violation of First Amendment rights of the newspaper.

Two previous constitutional challenges in Kansas and Arizona led to major amendments in the respective States’ anti-BDS laws, while a federal district court in Texas had ruled against a law restricting barring of employment into public institutions in April 2019.

The ruling comes at a time when global opposition against Israeli occupation of Palestine is rising and while US citizens and the international community question the country’s continued military and diplomatic support to Israel.

“The government of Israel has pushed state legislatures to enact these laws only because they know that sympathy and support for the population they brutalize, occupy, ethnically cleanse and subject to apartheid, is finally growing in popular consciousness — they want to hold back the tide of justice by preemptively restricting the right of American citizens to peacefully take a stand against their crimes,” Martin wrote.

Echoing Martin’s statement, PCJF counsel Mara Verheyden-Hilliard also stated that the ruling comes at a “crucial moment, when millions of Americans are questioning the use of US-provided weapons in the onslaught against the Palestinian people and makes clear that the Constitution protects participation in the BDS movement.”

“By standing up against this illegal anti-BDS law, Abby Martin ensures that all Americans have the freedom to stand up for Palestine,” said CAIR senior litigation attorney Gadeir Abbas.

“As the world watches Israeli aggression continue in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and against the population it besieges in Gaza, it has never been more urgent to advance the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli regime. The striking of this law is a necessary and timely opening to build this urgent task,” Martin’s statement concluded.

Martin, who runs an independent documentary channel, Empire Files, has been a long-time advocate for Palestinians’ right to self-determination and has staunchly opposed the Zionist aggression on Palestine and Israeli settler-colonialism. Several progressive public figures, activists and social movements in the US and around the world have commended the ruling as well.