It’s no secret that many in the academic community support boycotts as a means of pressuring and punishing Israel. So it’s understandable that proposed legislation to prohibit use of public funds to promote boycotts – authored by New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and now being considered by the Assembly – has created an uproar. An identical bill was passed last week by the State Senate.
But the logic employed by those opposed to the legislation escapes us. After all, opponents of the bill – including those not openly hostile to Israel – claim it stifles free expression and academic freedom, yet the law only seeks to discourage actions designed to limit those very values.
The statement of intent in a section of the bill itself, which critics conveniently leave out of any discussions, provides an important context in which to consider the legislation. Here are some excerpts:
The legislature hereby finds that it is beneficial to students of this state to have access to an education that is not bound by borders and to have the opportunity to obtain a global education…. A global education allows students to connect, compete, and cooperate with their peers around the world. Therefore it is the policy of the State of New York that colleges not use state funds to support boycotts of countries, or higher education institutions located in countries, that host higher education institutions chartered by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York.
In order to implement this policy the operative provisions of the law provide, in pertinent part:
No college in this state may use state aid provided directly to such college to: fund an academic entity, provide funds for membership in an academic entity or fund travel or lodging for any employee to attend any meeting of such academic entity if such entity has issued a public resolution or other official statement or undertaken an official action boycotting a host country or higher education institutions located in such country.
Significantly, in terms of free expression and academic freedom, another provision of the bill clarifies that it does not
limit the attendance by any employee of a college at any event of an academic entity that boycotts a host country or higher education institutions located in such country and attendance at meetings of any such entity shall not be used by the college with regard to employment decisions.
Typically, though, for most opponents who have gone public with their views, the pro-free speech and academic freedom thrust of the bill is ignored. Thus, the New York City chapter of the Center for Constitutional Rights airily concluded in a letter to legislators last week that the legislation “attempts to stifle constitutionally protected speech by denying aid to colleges and universities who fund membership in organizations that support boycotts of an enumerated list of countries, including Israel. But government restrictions and regulations cannot be based on the desire to punish speech that aims to influence public opinion on a nation’s policies and actions….”
It was even more pronounced for The New York Times. In an editorial titled “A Chill on Speech,” the Times presented the issue as follows:
The New York legislature is moving to pass a bill that would bar state financing for academic groups that have taken official action to boycott higher-education institutions in Israel. The initiative, which last week passed the State Senate, is now pending before the Assembly. It should be voted down by lawmakers, or, if they prove feckless, Gov. Andrew Cuomo should veto it.
The bill was introduced after the American Studies Association, an organization of scholars, in December adopted a resolution supporting a call by Palestinians to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The group said it would refuse formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars who represent those institutions or the Israeli government until “Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”
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