Last month, the Honors College Advisory Committee on Social Justice organized a student-moderated panel of Law and Middle East Studies professors to discuss Arkansas Act 710. The act not only deliberately limits free speech, but does so in an unwarranted area.
Although passed in 2017, this legislation is still relevant. Earlier this year, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge filed a brief in support of the act following the ACLU’s suit.
The original bill, Senate Bill 510, “prohibits public entities from contracting with and investing in companies that boycott Israel; and for other purposes.”
Act 710 is aimed to curb the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. But why would contractors of the state be concerned with Israeli controversy, other than having a personal political interest in it?
Boycotts are protected as a form of peaceful protest by the First Amendment, backed by the Supreme Court’s landmark 1982 decision in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Company.
Since the bill was enacted, anyone who enters a contract with the state of Arkansas must sign an agreement that they will not participate in a boycott of the state of Israel. The group and issue targeted by this bill are both so small that one is left wondering why it was even brought about. It seems to do nothing other than violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Upon being faced with concerns from citizens that Act 710 might pose a threat to First Amendment rights, the bill’s co-author, State Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville), admitted to the Ft. Smith Southwest Times Record last year that there was no particular incident that led representatives to draft the bill.
This leaves the act looking like it was written purely out of state representatives’ partisan interests. Most contractors seem to have little political disagreement with the new stipulation, but only out of disinterest.
Those who refuse to sign the agreement face a major profit loss, as Arkansas law will only allow non-signers to go through with a contract if they offer their services to the state at a rate reduced by 20%, according to the Arkansas Code.
Alan Leveritt, a publisher at The Arkansas Times, began receiving letters prompting him to sign the agreement shortly after the bill was passed. Largely confused by the introduction of international politics to a state-affiliated contract, he ignored the letters. After a colleague voiced concern that not signing the agreement could lead to loss of profit, Leveritt could no longer ignore the issue.
Ultimately, he chose not to sign the agreement, which he thought violated his First Amendment rights as a journalist, according to NBC.
Leveritt’s resistance lost him $13,000 of his profit from The Arkansas Times, despite not having any interest in either side of the movement protesting Israel. He was quoted by NBC News saying, “[TheArkansas Times] leans left of the center…” but [doesn’t] have a dog in that hunt,” referring to the BDS movement.
Oddly enough, Arkansas is one of 26 states with an act along these lines, with Illinois being the first to draft related legislation in 2016. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2017 with Arkansas Sen. John Boozman (R) as a co-sponsor, but it has not made it past the Senate.
For legislation nearly identical to that found in Arkansas, the American Civil Liberties Union was successful in suing the state of Kansas and the state of Arizona for violations of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, the ACLU failed in their suit against the state of Arkansas and has not returned to the issue.
It is clear that Act 710 will remain on the political agenda until a court decides whether or not First Amendment rights are violated.