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Md. Anti-BDS bill stifles freedom

Here we go again. For the fourth time since 2014, Maryland lawmakers have tried to use legislative action to hinder the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. This year, they've introduced a bill (SB739/HB949) that would prohibit individuals or corporations that support BDS from contracting with the state, which plainly violates the First Amendment. This bill is an obvious attempt to stymie political dissent, and it is a waste of time at the taxpayers' expense in an already pressed three-month legislative session.

Boycott is a commonly-employed, peaceful tool for change to address injustice, long recognized as protected First Amendment expression. For decades, Israel advocates exclaimed that there was no Palestinian Gandhi and if only the Palestinians would embrace non-violence, their grievances would be heard. Now that a non-violent Palestinian-led movement has emerged, calling upon the world community to boycott entities that profit from Israel's ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights, these same critics are trying to suppress it through legislation.

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For the past three years, Israel lobbyists and lawmakers in state legislatures around the country have introduced bills to stifle the BDS movement's hopeful message of freedom, justice and equality. In 2014, the Maryland civil rights community pushed back when Del. Ben Kramer introduced an unconstitutional bill that would have defunded Maryland's public universities for facilitating professors' participation in academic association meetings perceived to favor BDS. After this bill fizzled, toothless compromise language condemning BDS was added to the budget bill at the last minute when no lawmaker could easily oppose it. In 2016, anti-BDS advocates trumpeted their plans for a new bill in the press, but after strong opposition, the legislative session ended without a bill having been introduced.

Sixteen states have passed these unconstitutional bills. While many of the bills that have passed are resolutions that symbolically condemn BDS, they create a favorable climate for the government to suppress political dissent. This should worry all of us.

In New York State, after two anti-BDS bills stalled out in the state legislature over constitutional concerns, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order barring a list of companies that support BDS from doing business with the state. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to discriminate in public benefits based on a political viewpoint, but this didn't deter a politician intent on scoring political points. And none of the companies on Mr. Cuomo's list do business with New York state anyway, making clear the improper purpose of this legislation.

But in spite of this, the BDS movement for Palestinian rights is stronger and more organized than ever. Jewish Voice for Peace, the largest Jewish group supporting BDS, has been recognized as a growing force in the American Jewish community, impossible to ignore. In the past three years, their membership has tripled, and it now boasts more than 60 chapters in 30 states throughout the country, including chapters in Baltimore and D.C. According to a recent poll released by the Brookings Institution, 60 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of all Americans support sanctions or stronger action against Israel because of settlement construction. Nearly half of all Americans and 60 percent of Democrats support a form of BDS. In cities around this country, protesters now chant for Palestinian rights alongside the range of progressive issues potentially impacted by the new administration's agenda.

In Maryland, opponents of anti-BDS legislation include Muslim, Jewish and Christian advocacy organizations working together to promote a better future for all in the Middle East. Civil rights giants like the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights have also weighed in against the bills.

At a time when the new president has declared war on civil liberties, legislative maneuvers like this harm our democracy. We need and deserve a robust, open conversation about our foreign policy more than we ever have. And most importantly, legislation cannot stop the momentum of the movement for Palestinian freedom and equality. At this vulnerable time for our society, we must not enable legislators to suppress viewpoints they don't like. Instead, we should insist they preserve and respect the rights of all to speak.

Rachel Roberts is an attorney and activist who lives in Montgomery County. Twitter: @rachelhinda; blog: notesfromexile.com.

Editor's note: This op-ed was updated to reflect the correct number of legislative actions taken in Maryland.

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