(NEW YORK)— PEN America said today it is “deeply problematic” that the University of Arkansas Medical School  withheld a $500 honoraria to a doctor who refused to agree to not boycott Israel in return for payment, saying the demand chills free speech and free thought.

Dr. Steve Feldman of North Carolina was refused the honoraria after giving a Zoom presentation to students. In advance of his speech, he did not check a box on a University speaking agreement that required speakers not to boycott Israel.

A 2017 law specifies that any person or company doing business with the state must pledge not to boycott Israel. Though the law specifies that only contracts in excess of $1,000 are of concern, the university nonetheless refused to pay Dr. Feldman.

In response, Kate Ruane, director of U.S. Free Expression Programs at PEN America, said:

“It is deeply problematic that Dr. Feldman is being denied payment for his services because he refuses to give up his First Amendment right to boycott in support of political change. The government should not be putting its thumb on the scale of political debate by forcing private citizens to either acquiesce to the government’s preferred views or forgo important opportunities or payment for their work. This statute is speech-chilling and harmful in all of its applications but it is particularly frightening to consider that a university system, where the free exchange of ideas is paramount, is being forced by state law to limit the types of contractors and lecturers that can be paid for their services based on their viewpoint.”

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

About PEN America

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. To learn more visit PEN.org