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Kansas Ban on Israel Boycotts Chills Speech, Judge Rules

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked Kansas from enforcing a law requiring state contractors to sign a document pledging not to boycott Israel. 

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) – A federal judge on Tuesday blocked Kansas from enforcing a law requiring state contractors to sign a document pledging not to boycott Israel.

The state law, which took effect last year, requires state contractors to promise that they’re not engaged in any boycott against Israel and Israeli companies.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree granted a preliminary injunction, finding the law violates the right to free speech.

“While the Kansas law may have been passed by the Legislature with flying colors, that showing merely would demonstrate that one state Legislature had enacted a statute,” Crabtree wrote. “Such a showing would not place the Kansas law on the same level as an amendment to our Constitution – the very first amendment adopted by our founders and one ratified by three-fourths of our states.”

Crabtree’s ruling stems from a lawsuit brought by Esther Koontz, a curriculum coach and math teacher who belongs to the Mennonite Church. Koontz participates in the church’s boycott of Israel in protest of the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

As a result of her refusal to sign the form, the state declined to contract with her on a statewide education project. Koontz is represented by the ACLU.

“The court has rightly recognized the serious First Amendment harms being inflicted by this misguided law, which imposes an unconstitutional ideological litmus test,” said ACLU attorney Brian Hauss in a statement. “This ruling should serve as a warning to government officials around the country that the First Amendment prohibits the government from suppressing participation in political boycotts.”

Crabtree said Koontz showed that she would suffer irreparable harm warranting the preliminary injunction.

“Plaintiff’s harm stems not from her decision to refuse to sign the certification, but rather from the plainly unconstitutional choice the Kansas law forces plaintiff to make: She either can contract with the state or she can support a boycott of Israel,” Crabtree wrote. “Her harm is ongoing because the Kansas law is currently chilling plaintiff’s and other putative state contractors’ speech rights.”

The preliminary injunction will be in place while the lawsuit is litigated.

“Today’s ruling marks a notable victory for the First Amendment,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas in a written statement. “The government has no right telling people what they can and can’t support, and this preliminary injunction will protect other Kansans from enduring the First Amendment violation that Ms. Koontz has endured.”

Kansas is one of several states with similar anti-boycott laws on the books. Last year, the proposed Israel Anti-Boycott Act was introduced to both the U.S. House and Senate, though it was never passed.

Then-Gov. Sam Brownback, who signed the bill into law, did not respond to a call for comment. Koontz’s lead attorneys in the lawsuit are Stephen Bonney with the ACLU of Kansas and Hauss, with the ACLU office in New York.

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