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“It’s incompatible with the principles of academic freedom and free speech,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “In our society the response to bad ideas is not to suppress them or punish them, but to dispute them.”
Both LaHood and Lieberman said they expected their organizations would challenge the bill in court if it becomes law.
Klein rejected claims that his bill would violate the First Amendment. “I believe the ASA can’t hide behind the First Amendment to make a political statement that interferes with intellectual freedom,” he said. The bill, he argued is “very narrowly tailored,” and makes exceptions for boycotts involving state sponsors of terrorism, labor disputes, or “protesting unlawful discriminatory practices.”
The bill’s opponents say the measure’s premise is unconstitutional, no matter how many caveats are added. “When you’re trying to punish an academic institution for allowing academics to engage in free speech and debate, it’s hard to write a bill that will pass constitutional muster,” Lieberman said.
By penalizing schools only for the amount of state money they spend to support groups boycotting Israel, the revised Assembly bill seeks to address some of the opponents’ concerns. Under the earlier legislation passed in the State Senate, universities that used state money to participate in the activities of groups like the ASA would lose all state funding for an academic year.
“It’s draconian,” LaHood said. “If they spent $150 dollars to support a [professor] going to an ASA meeting and that money was from state funds, they would lose all of their state funding for the entire year.”
The language in Klein’s bill appears to bear LaHood out. But Klein denied this. He claimed that only state funding used specifically for participation in groups like the ASA would be in jeopardy. “They would lose the money that they allocated towards ASA purposes,” he said.
The State Senate bill states that “no college shall be eligible for state aid during the academic year that such college is in violation” of the funding ban.
“Maybe he doesn’t know what’s in his own bill, but he’s wrong,” LaHood said.
The push-back against the New York bill has not deterred supporters of similar legislation in Maryland and Illinois. Silverstein, the Illinois state senator, was unaware of the New York backlash. “How much controversy has it had?” he said, when asked whether the opposition to the New York measure had made him wary about introducing his own bill. “I don’t know what’s going on up there.”
The Baltimore Jewish Council, a local organization similar to the New York JCRC, is continuing to support the Maryland bill and collaborate with its sponsors. “We’ve been working with them to draft a bill that would be both effective and constitutional,” said Arthur Abramson, Baltimore Jewish Council Executive Director, reached in Annapolis while lobbying for the bill. “We’ve gotten an opinion from the Maryland attorney general that it’s constitutional.”
Whatever the final outcome, some see the current backlash in New York as an ominous sign for pro-Israel groups. “The speaker’s bills never get yanked. It just never happens,” Ryan Karben, a former Democratic State Assemblyman and vocal Israel supporter said, referring to Silver’s support for the original State Assembly measure. “If you’re having controversy over pro-Israel legislation in the Legislature in New York, that should be an alarm for the pro- Israel community across the country.”
Karben blamed the resistance on what he sees as left-wing Democrats’ slow drift away from support for Israel. “You clearly have a skunk in the Democratic tent on Israel and it smells really bad,” he said.