Dickinson officials should pretty quickly seek clarification about whether a state law attempting to suppress political dissent and political action against the state of Israel actually does apply to the city’s disaster recovery grant applications.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday criticized the application because it requires homeowners to “verify” that they won’t boycott the Middle-Eastern nation. The verification apparently is a condition of receiving the aid.
Dickinson’s disaster grant application states that by signing it, “the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”
The clause is noteworthy just because it’s magnificently bizarre, but there’s a serious concern here for city officials to consider. What the ACLU very well may be warning is that it intends to make Dickinson a test case to litigate the constitutionality of a recently passed state law.
City officials said Thursday they added the clause in an effort to follow a law approved during the most recent session and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May, which banned any contractor who supports the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign from receiving state funds.
But the requirement is unconstitutional and a clear violation of the First Amendment, the ACLU said Thursday.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit earlier this month challenging a similar Kansas law on behalf of a high school math teacher who is being required by the state to certify that she won’t boycott Israel if she wants to take part in a teacher training program.
“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression,” ACLU of Texas Legal Director Andre Segura said.
“Dickinson’s requirement is an egregious violation of the First Amendment, reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths requiring Americans to disavow membership in the Communist party and other forms of ‘subversive’ activity.”
The city pointed to a state law known as the “Anti-Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions” bill, which Dickinson has interpreted as a requirement for all city contracts.
The city opened the grant applications to Dickinson residents devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The grants are funded by donations to the Dickinson Harvey Relief Fund, the city said.
In May, Abbott signed into law House Bill 99, authored by Republican Texas House Rep. Phil King, prohibiting state agencies from contracting with, and certain public funds from investing in, companies that boycott Israel.
“As Israel’s No. 1 trading partner in the United States, Texas is proud to reaffirm its support for the people of Israel and we will continue to build on our historic partnership,” Abbott said on May 2.
“Anti-Israel policies are anti-Texas policies, and we will not tolerate such actions against an important ally.”
The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that political boycotts are protected by the First Amendment, the ACLU said. The ACLU has cited a 1982 Supreme Court ruling in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. The decision in that case said that while states can regulate economic activities they cannot prohibit political boycotts.
Dickinson’s requirement gets questionable long before the argument gets anywhere near the Constitution, however.
It’s a huge leap, for example, from government contractors who support the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, to private citizens wanting to avail themselves of a benefit offered by their government.
So, it’s not at all clear the law even applies in this case, no matter whether the law is constitutional or not.
City officials ought to do themselves and the taxpayers a favor and remove that clause unless the state of Texas orders them to include it.
Short of that, they should get a pledge in writing that the state will pay 100 percent of the legal costs to fight the ACLU’s lawsuit.
• Michael A. Smith