High Court Declines Arkansas Case on Boycotting Israel

Marjorie Cohn covers the Supreme Court decision to let the state’s anti-BDS law stand — and ignore legal precedent protecting the right to boycott under the First Amendment. 

“Boycott Israeli Products” in Hands Off Gaza demonstration in London on Jan. 3, 2009. (Claudia Gabriela Marques Vieira, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Marjorie Cohn

While the far right Israeli regime escalates its repression of Palestinians, the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to disturb an Arkansas law that requires government contractors to certify they are not boycotting Israel or “Israeli-controlled territories.”

The high court didn’t specifically uphold Arkansas’s anti-boycott law. However, the court declined to review the case because there were not four “justices” who agreed to hear it. So Arkansas’s anti-Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) law remains in effect.

The BDS movement was launched in 2005, when 170 Palestinian civil society organizations called for boycott, divestment and sanctions — “non-violent punitive measures” — to last until Israel fully complies with international law.

To do that, Israel must: 1) end its occupation and colonization of all Arab territory and dismantle the barrier wall; 2) recognize the fundamental rights of Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens to full equality and 3) respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their land as mandated by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.

“Boycott” is withdrawal of support for Israel as well as Israeli and international companies, including cultural and academic institutions, that violate Palestinian human rights.

“Divestment” means that churches, banks, universities, pension funds and local councils withdraw their investments from Israeli and international companies that are complicit in violating Palestinian rights.

“Sanctions” involve governments ending military trade and free-trade agreements and the expulsion of Israel from international fora.

The successes of the BDS movement have prompted Israel lobby organizations, including right-wing Christian Zionist groups, to introduce anti-boycott legislation at the local, state and federal levels.

Arkansas’ Anti-Boycott Law

Old Main building on University of Arkansas campus. (Great Degree/Flickr, RebelAt, CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of these laws is Act 710, which Arkansas enacted in 2017. It says that a public entity shall not “enter into a contract with a company … unless it includes a written certification that it is not currently engaged in, and agrees for the duration of the contract not to engage in, a boycott of Israel.”

Contractors who have contracts in excess of $1,000 must pay a 20 percent penalty if they refuse to sign the certification.

In October 2018, the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees informed Alan Leveritt, CEO of Arkansas Times, that they would not contract with his newspaper for additional advertising unless he signed a certification stating that the Arkansas Times is not currently boycotting Israel, and agreed for the duration of the contract not to boycott Israel.

Although Leveritt was not boycotting Israel, he would not sign the pledge. Thereafter, the board of trustees refused to enter into several advertising contracts with the Arkansas Times.

The Arkansas Times sued the board of trustees in December 2018 and requested a preliminary injunction, arguing that the act’s certification requirement violated the First Amendment. It restricts participation in political boycotts and targets protected expression on the basis of its subject matter and viewpoint, and it compels speech.

A federal district judge denied the motion for preliminary injunction and dismissed Arkansas Times’s lawsuit. A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court and ruled that Act 710 violated the First Amendment.

In June 2022, the entire Eighth Circuit reversed the panel decision and dismissed the case. The court held that direct participation in a boycott is not protected by the First Amendment even where the state has singled out boycotts on a specific topic and is expressing a specific viewpoint for prohibition.

The First Amendment only protects the speech and association accompanying a boycott, not the boycott itself, the court said.

Precedent Protecting Boycotts

U.S. Supreme Court building. (Joe Ravi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

By dismissing the Arkansas Times’s lawsuit, the Eighth Circuit violated long-standing Supreme Court precedent which holds that states cannot suppress politically motivated consumer boycotts. The Supreme Court has ruled that the government cannot restrict expression because of its message, ideas, subject matter or content.

Nevertheless, on Feb. 21, the Supreme Court denied certiorari and refused to hear Arkansas Times’s appeal, thereby allowing the Eighth Circuit ruling to stand.

The high court’s refusal to disturb Arkansas’s anti-boycott law will encourage states that are introducing and passing bills targeting other politically motivated boycotts, such as those directed at firearms manufacturers, energy companies, and timber, mining and agriculture interests.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represented the Arkansas Times in this case, wrote in its petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court that under the Eighth Circuit’s rationale, “states would be free to outlaw participation in disfavored boycott campaigns — whether targeted at companies that support Israel, Saudi Arabia, Planned Parenthood, or the National Rifle Association” even though “content discrimination is presumptively unconstitutional.”

Citing Supreme Court precedent that protects boycotts seeking to “bring about political, social, and economic change,” the ACLU’s cert petition noted that politically motivated consumer boycotts “have been ubiquitous” throughout U.S. history.

It cited the boycott of merchants who sold goods made by enslaved people in the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and boycotts during the civil rights movement and in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid. “These acts of collective protest are an enduring part of the fabric of American public discourse,” the ACLU wrote.

“From the Boston Tea Party to the Montgomery bus boycott, to the campaign for divestment from apartheid South Africa, boycotts have played a central role in this nation’s history,” First Amendment scholars, including Berkeley Law School’s Erwin Chemerinsky, Columbia Law School’s Katherine Franke and University of Chicago’s Geoffrey Stone, wrote in their amicus brief in support of the cert petition. They said:

“Americans have used boycotts across a range of issues to express their shared convictions and to force social and political change. The Eighth Circuit’s decision undermines this rich tradition of protest.”

Important Opportunity Missed

The Roberts Court justices, from June 2022 to present. Left to right: Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Ketanji Brown Jackson, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh. (SCOTUS, Public domain)

Anti-BDS laws have been introduced in more than 40 states and 35 states have enacted anti-boycott legislation, according to Palestine Legal.

Federal courts in Kansas, Texas, Georgia and Arizona have held that laws penalizing boycotts of Israel violate the First Amendment. The Eighth Circuit’s ruling, which the Supreme Court allowed to stand, conflicts with those state decisions.

“The Supreme Court missed an important opportunity to reaffirm that the First Amendment protects the right to boycott,” said Brian Hauss, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, in a statement.

“This is simply a template. It doesn’t stop here,” Arkansas Times’s Leveritt told The Guardian. “We now have in the Arkansas legislature bills introduced to deny state contracts to financial and banking institutions that have [social, environmental and corporate governance] policies that prohibit them from investing in fossil fuels or firearms companies.”

“The struggle for collective liberation requires global solidarity and economic pressure,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), a Palestinian American, tweeted, responding to the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the Arkansas law. “Today’s decision is a travesty, but the people will not be silenced.”

Supporters of Palestinian rights will carry on the struggle both inside and outside the courtroom. “We will continue to push back against these laws that undermine our collective First Amendment rights but the courts will not liberate Palestine or save us from climate catastrophe,” Palestine Legal Senior Staff Attorney Meera Shah told Mondoweiss, adding:

“The best legal protection for BDS and every other movement that boycotts for justice is to mainstream people power tactics of collective action, which is why it’s critical to keep boycotting and organizing to ensure justice for all, including Palestinians.”

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild, and a member of the national advisory boards of Assange Defense and Veterans For Peace, and the bureau of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her books include Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral and Geopolitical Issues. She is co-host of “Law and Disorder” radio.

This article is from Truthout and reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

10 comments for “High Court Declines Arkansas Case on Boycotting Israel

  1. Mark Stanley
    March 4, 2023 at 15:08

    Please someone who knows more about law help me out here. This entire premise seems fundamentally flawed:
    How can a government entity in the US legally represent a foreign country?

    • robert e williamson jr
      March 5, 2023 at 15:44

      Mark in reference to you question I readily agree. Especially when we consider how little respect the U.S. Government pays to the world court.

      Check out this site, just one of many available. But in the end it seems to be all about money! Money drives the lobby in D.C.. Imagine that!


  2. Realist
    March 4, 2023 at 02:59

    More ass-wiping with the constitution demanded by the federal government, I see.

    I would say that you have no duty to abide by a promise that the government has no right to demand.

    Sign the damned paper but treat IT like a piece of irrelevant toilet paper, not the constitution. Ignore the promise extracted under duress from a government acting outside its own constitution.

    You let any court declare the first amendment null and void, the entire document can be tossed in the round file.

    The first amendment is meant to protect the freedoms of American citizens, not any imaginary rights of the Israeli government to intimidate them! The Israeli government does not even warrant an explanation.

  3. JonnyJames
    March 3, 2023 at 11:26

    The Rule of Hypocrisy and Double Standards. SCOTUS is also a Freak Show

    The institutional rot and corruption is on display for all to see, yet most look the other way.

    The Citizens United case should have finally made SCOTUS a focus of contempt, ridicule and sarcasm.

  4. DMCP
    March 3, 2023 at 09:23

    I’m not a big fan of BDS, but isn’t it interesting that the US, a state that so readily uses economic sanctions against its opponents, is so restrictive when its citizens try to do the same?

  5. robert e williamson jr
    March 2, 2023 at 21:11

    Boycotting is a protest that involves money, more precisely the flow of money.

    Money is speech according the ruling of the “activist Scotus of US”.

    First the court ruled money was speech, now the current group of /rogue justices seem to be saying if any person or organization wishes to speak out criticizing or protesting an entity by with holding business with or money from that entity you cannot.

    Why not? I am not buying this bull shit for one minute. This supreme court has drawn considerable attention to it’s self and should be investigated very stubbornly with great discipline to either remove it from power or other wise bring it under control. The court has went entirely rogue on many very important issues. What has happened, crickets, friend not one dog damned thing,

    I did a google search tonight, “Methods that can be used to fight as rogue supreme court.” The prompts were far too many to list here. If it isn’t too late already my bet goes to fighting these obnoxious bastards tooth and nail.

    I’m sure Senator Durbin is growing weary of my repeated e-mails with responses that do little other that espouse the “Party”.

    We have a purely bull shit war in Ukraine, I wonder why, with my tongue on my cheek and my teeth tightly clamped to my it. Biting my tongue as it were, of course this goddamned war make no sense just as the US governments kid glove treatment of Israel makes no sense.

    We have been had by a government more interested in protecting Mother israel, that it’s own citizens.


    And write your congress men or email the worthless phonies, this entire situation is totally out of hand.

    I have never doubted CN and it’s commitments to it’s followers, just as I don’t doubt the pressure is tremendous to silence it.

    Be strong, endeavor to resist wrong and never ever give up.

    At the time I posted this shumtzoid and Dnfslblty were the only two comments up, I agree with both.

    This courts current renditions of law opinions are offensive to every freedom loving decent American.

    See Ya’ll later folks! I am literally and figuratively sick and tired of this bullshit.

    Thanks CN.

  6. Dfnslblty
    March 2, 2023 at 19:47

    >> Nevertheless, on Feb. 21, the Supreme Court denied certiorari and refused to hear Arkansas Times’s appeal, thereby allowing the Eighth Circuit ruling to stand.<<

    The exhibit above presents the true powers in the usa — and those powers are foreign money and fear in the receivers of said money.


    … any and all who perpetrate human rights crimes!

  7. TRogers
    March 2, 2023 at 19:01

    The powers that be behind Israel have obviously captured America’s corporate media, since that media always covers up Israel’s many, ongoing crimes.

    Those powers have also largely captured Congress through overwhelming campaign “donations”, resulting in an equally silent and compliant Congress.

    Those powers have also captured over half of America’s state legislatures, essentially requiring an Israeli loyalty oath to obtain state government contracts.

    And now we see those powers have essentially captured America’s Supreme Court.

    America must turn this trajectory around and save itself from these predators.

    Jewish Israeli scholar Israel Shahak has explained that according to the Talmud Jews are supreme and non-Jews are sub-humans. That explains Israel’s actions toward both Palestinians and Americans. Shahak’s book is available online free here.
    Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years

  8. shmutzoid
    March 2, 2023 at 18:21

    That four SC Justices couldn’t muster up the courage to even hear this case argued is a testament to how deep the Israel lobby has burrowed into US institutions. ………, The BDS movement has widespread global support – hence, anti-BDS ‘laws’ have now been enacted in about half the states. Helluva’ ‘democracy’ we have here, huh? ———– Israel has managed to get the world to accept its definition of anti-semitism, which equates ANYTHING critical of Israel gov’t. policy as being anti-semitic. That, in itself ,is astounding!!

    If the US can sanction such anti-democratic laws, how far away are we until laws are enacted that make criticism of US policy/war “anti-American hate speech”???? …..with large scale protests deemed “crimes against the public order”?? You are in a fool’s paradise if you think this is far fetched.

    • March 3, 2023 at 10:31

      Not far sir, not far. Arkansas is already proposing contract denial to institutions that prohibit investments in fossil fuel. Brought to you by the people who wax poetically about freedom.

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