Friday, April 26, 2019
In an opinion in Amawi v. Pflugerville Independent School District, United States District Judge for the Western District of Texas, Judge Robert Pittman, issued a temporary injunction against Texas Gov. Code § 2270.001 et seq., also known as Texas H.B. 89, passed in 2017.
HB 89 prohibits governmental entities from entering into contracts for goods or services unless the contract contains a written verification that the contractor does not and will not "boycott Israel." Texas essentially admitted HB 89 is targeted at participants in the BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement which protests Israel's "occupation of Palestinian territory and its treatment of Palestinian citizens and refugees." The five plaintiffs —a speech pathologist contracting with a school district; a freelance writer, artist, interpreter, and translator contracting with a university; and three university students who would contract with high schools as debate tournament judges — refused to sign the required statement that they did not and would not boycott Israel.
Judge Pittman easily found that the plaintiffs had standing, that their claims were ripe, and that the action was not barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity.
On the merits of the First Amendment claims, Judge Pittman's careful and well reasoned opinion first concluded that the prohibition of a boycott was inherently expressive activity protected by the First Amendment. The parties had raised what Judge Pittman called "dueling precedents": NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. (1992) and Rumsfeld v. FAIR (2006). He concluded:
Claiborne, not FAIR, governs this case. Texas does not dispute that Plaintiffs’ boycotts are political; they support the BDS movement’s “dispute with the Israeli government’s policies.” Claiborne deals with political boycotts; FAIR, in contrast, is not about boycotts at all. The Supreme Court did not treat the FAIR plaintiffs’ conduct as a boycott: the word “boycott” appears nowhere in the opinion, the decision to withhold patronage is not implicated, and Claiborne, the key decision recognizing that the First Amendment protects political boycotts, is not discussed.
Moreover, Judge Pittman stated, even if "it were generally true that boycotts are not inherently expressive, H.B. 89, by its terms, applies only to expressive boycotts," given the statutory definitions. Judge Pittman then rejected the arguments of Texas that exceptions to Claiborne were applicable.
Judge Pittman then found that the H.B. 89 was viewpoint and content discrimination, and was not government speech under Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. (2015). Applying the applicable standard of strict scrutiny, Judge Walker found that the asserted compelling governmental interests failed. Judge Pittman found two of the interests — prohibiting national-origin discrimination, and prohibiting state contractors from violating anti-discrimination principles — to essentially be not the actual interests underlying H.B. 89. Judge Pittman noted the statute does not refer to the "national origin" or "nationality" of individuals but to "the nation of Israel." Judge Pittman described the statute as being "underinclusive" in this way, providing examples of who would and would not be covered by the statute. As to the third interest asserted by Texas — aligning the state's commercial interests with Israel because it is “one of the few democracies in the Middle East and an ally of the United States and this State" — Judge Pittman essentially found this was not compelling. Texas had argued that “the First Amendment does not prevent restrictions directed at commerce or conduct from imposing incidental burdens on speech,” but Judge Pittman found that this was not an "incidental burden" on speech, but targeted specific speech directly.
Judge Pittman then proceeded to an analysis of the means chosen, although clearly stated that because "H.B. 89 is not justified by any compelling state interest, no amount of narrowing application will preserve it from constitutional attack. But even if Texas’s stated interests were the actual interests advanced by the statute—and even if they were compelling—the Court finds that H.B. 89 still sweeps too broadly."
Judge Pittman's extensive and detailed opinion then found that plaintiffs' additional First Amendment arguments — that the statute is an unconstitutional condition, that it was compelled speech, and that it was unconstitutionally vague — all had merit.
The constitutionality of anti-BDS statutes is being vigorously litigated and Judge Pittman's decision is sure to be appealed. The opinion's perspective on the popularity of anti-BDS statutes is quite interesting:
Twenty five states have enacted similar legislation or issued executive orders restricting boycotts of Israel, and Congress has declared its opposition to the BDS movement, see 19 U.S.C. § 4452. In Texas, only five legislators voted against H.B. 89. Texas touts these numbers as the statute’s strength. They are, rather, its weakness. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette (1943).
[some citations omitted].