On Feb. 10 at a press conference in Atlanta, Abby Martin along with Council for American Islamic Relations of Atlanta and civil rights lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard from the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund filed a suit against the university system of Georgia over alleged violations of freedom of speech.
Abby Martin, journalist and director of the film “Gaza Fights for Freedom,” was contracted as the keynote speaker at the 2020 International Critical Media Literacy Conference at the Savannah campus of Georgia Southern University. After months of planning and back and forth communications with the school, Martin was forced to cancel her appearance after reading through the contractual agreement featuring a pledge to refrain from boycotting Israel.
Signed in 2016 by Gov. Nathan Deal, SB 327 is a law stipulating that for any individual seeking a contract with the state of Georgia valued at $1,000 or more is required to sign a pledge of oath agreeing not to boycott Israel. Georgia along with 26 other states have similar anti-BDS laws on the books as a response to the growing grassroots movement against the human rights abuses perpetrated in Israel. Martin spoke of the historical context of boycotts in the fight for social justice.
“The BDS movement exists to mount pressure against Israel to stop these atrocities similar to the grassroots movement that brought the end of apartheid in South Africa,” Martin said.
Edward Mitchell of CAIR Atlanta compared the boycott ban to the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa and said if similar bans were enacted then they would be “irrational, illegal and unconstitutional.”
When the bill was introduced, it was opposed by then house minority leader Stacey Abrams. The suit filed by Martin will be the first legal challenge to the Georgia anti-BDS law. The ban becomes a political litmus test for all state contractors. Similar bans were enacted during the civil rights movement in the South where Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in 1956 for participating in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These anti-boycott laws were tactics for the state to derail the fight of civil rights activists against Jim Crow.
This law contrasts with the Campus Free Speech Act passed in Georgia two years ago which introduces state sanction disciplinary measures for students or faculty that protest against invited speakers. The act details the protection of comments and opinions voiced by students or speakers however unfavorable or offensive. The legislature supposes conservative and right-wing speakers are suppressed on college campuses and need this legal protection against progressive backlash. The law also stipulates universities must remain neutral on any public policy. Abby Martin, however, was kept from speaking at a university because she exercised her constitutionally protected right to peacefully boycott.
Civil and human rights lawyer Mara Verheyden commented on this contradiction, “It is not about free speech, it is simply about controlling people’s political beliefs and expression.” The Campus Free Speech Act is related to other legislature passed in different states. The legal language in the various acts was written by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative libertarian think tank, which has been responsible for pushing right-wing policies in states throughout the country. The Goldwater Institute, in turn, receives funding from the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives who draft and share cookie cutter conservative bills for state-level legislation.
As a result of the anti-BDS pledge, Martin was unable to attend the university conference which was subsequently canceled. She was prevented from speaking and her First Amendment right to participate in peaceful boycotts was violated. She was left uncertain what fulfilling the pledge would look like as a journalist whose work focuses on the Palestinian struggle. Would she have to scrub her work online throughout websites and news sources in order to comply? The lawsuit submitted aims to strike the law, prevent other BDS supporters from having their rights violated and join Texas as part of a growing list of states repealing anti-BDS laws.