Gov. Hogan's executive order stifles free speech

This week, Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order into law that threatens the First Amendment right of Maryland residents to engage in boycotts and other economic acts of conscience. While it singles out boycotts in support of Palestinian rights in particular, this executive order amounts to an attack on the constitutionally protected right to free speech and the democratic process itself, and it should be rejected by all Marylanders regardless of their views on Israel and Palestine.

Americans have a long and honorable tradition of engaging in boycotts in the service of human rights, from the Montgomery bus boycott during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s to today’s efforts to resist laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people in places like North Carolina and Indiana. We, along with many other Americans, have been involved in boycotts as part of the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, to improve labor conditions for agricultural workers and other noble causes. Moreover, the Supreme Court has affirmed that the right to boycott is enshrined in the First Amendment.

Yet Governor Hogan’s executive order disregards all of this. It requires that “any entity” certify that they don’t abide by boycotts in support of Palestinian rights in order to qualify for state contracts or to conduct official business with the state, and directs the Board of Trustees of the Maryland State Retirement and Pension System to divest from “any companies that hold investments with entities who participate” in said boycotts. The ACLU of Maryland swiftly condemned the order as an “attempt to impose a political litmus test on who can be a state contractor” and noting that it’s “quite clearly unconstitutional."

Maryland now joins Congress and some two dozen other states that have adopted legislation specifically designed to suppress boycotts related to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. As with Governor Hogan’s executive order, the ACLU and other civil liberties groups have warned that these laws are politically motivated and pose a serious threat to the constitutional rights of all Americans.

In the first major legal challenge to this wave of anti-boycott laws, earlier this month the ACLU filed suit against the state of Kansas after a math teacher was prevented from working as a contractor because she wouldn’t verify that she doesn’t support boycotts related to Israel. The teacher is a member of the Mennonite Church, which recently passed a resolution endorsing a boycott of companies that profit from Israel’s 50-year-old military occupation of Palestinian lands and accompanying human rights abuses.

Indeed, a growing number of Americans, including labor organizations, academic and student organizations, and faith groups, are critical of Israeli policies and looking for peaceful ways to help affect positive change in the region, including through the use of boycotts.

In addition to the Mennonites, over the past few years mainstream Christian denominations like the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have endorsed boycotts, divestment or other economic tools to protest Israel’s construction of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land, which violate longstanding official U.S. policy and numerous United Nations resolutions, and are a major impediment to peace in the region.

Highlighting how out of touch politicians who support anti-boycott laws are with their constituents, polls show that about 40 percent of all Americans, and 60 percent of Democrats, would even support sanctions or stronger action against Israel because of settlement building.

Governor Hogan’s executive order is, simply put, bad policy, which is why previous attempts to pass similar anti-boycott legislation in Maryland failed to generate enough support to pass. No one should be punished by the state for acting peacefully according to their conscience, and companies should not be retaliated against for taking an ethical stand. Just like people shouldn’t be punished for protesting racial injustice during sporting and other public events.

However, if he wants to legislate against boycotts, or anything else, Governor Hogan should at least respect the democratic process by letting Maryland lawmakers and the constituents that we represent have our say, rather than bypassing the General Assembly with executive orders.

Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat, is a Maryland State Senator from Prince George’s County; his email is paul.pinsky@senate.state.md.us. Jimmy Tarlau, also a Democrat, is a Maryland State Delegate from Prince George’s County; his email is jimmy.tarlau@house.state.md.us.

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