NEW YORK—An Arkansas federal judge’s decision to throw out a lawsuit challenging the state’s anti-boycott legislation is a disappointing ruling for free expression and the First Amendment, PEN America said in a statement today.  

The lawsuit, which was brought by the ACLU on behalf of  the Arkansas Times, arose after the newspaper was told the University of Arkansas could no longer advertise with them without the newspaper first agreeing to the legally mandated pledge not to boycott Israel. Under current Arkansas law passed in 2017, state institutions are prohibited from investing in or contracting with companies that boycott Israel, and government contractors must sign a pledge never to boycott the foreign nation, or reduce their fees by 20%. In his ruling, the judge upheld the constitutionality of the anti-boycott bill, saying that the Times’ First Amendment rights do not extend to decisions “to refuse to deal, or to refrain from purchasing certain goods” and that a “company’s decision to discriminate against Israel, Israeli entities, or entities that do business with or in Israel, is an unsound business practice, making the company an unduly risky contracting partner or vehicle for investment.” At least 26 states around the country have similar anti-boycott legislation that either prohibit political or economic protest of Israel and/or impose financial costs on those who exercise that constitutional right.

“Irrespective of the substance of one’s protest, state action like the law in Arkansas forbidding expression on the basis of one’s political views is deeply troubling,” said Nora Benavidez, Director of U.S. Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “The ruling today from the Arkansas district court failed to consider other important federal court rulings around the country that have protected this kind of speech as a core First Amendment right. Constitutional protections cannot be applied selectively based on one’s viewpoint, and this decision sets an alarming precedent for Americans’ right to freely exercise their political beliefs in ways clearly protected by the First Amendment.”

PEN America has previously reported on proposals to stifle free expression, arguing that political boycotts are constitutionally protected tools for social reform which have been used throughout this country’s history.  

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: agasparian@pen.org