The Ghost of Joe McCarthy Arises

Last spring, Assembly Member Richard Bloom proposed AB 2844. This bill would create blacklists of groups who participate in the Boycott, Divestments & Sanctions (BDS) campaign and then use...
Joe Mccarthy
photo credit to DonkeyHotey via flickr

Last spring, Assembly Member Richard Bloom proposed AB 2844. This bill would create blacklists of groups who participate in the Boycott, Divestments & Sanctions (BDS) campaign and then use these lists to ban those businesses from working for the state of California.  It is against the law for the state to engage in commerce with businesses that discriminate based on race, religion or sex. Bloom’s bill states that any boycott of Israel is inherently discriminatory and thus illegal.  Bloom conflates the policies of the Likud government with international Judaism.  One in five Israeli’s isn’t even Jewish. This bill passed in the state legislature in August. The governor now has 45 days to sign it into law.

A blacklist endangers free speech. The blacklists of the House Un-American Activities and Joe McCarthy damaged hundreds of lives as they crippled democracy in the 40s and 50s.  People will self-censor to avoid being placed on one. The Assembly Committee on Appropriations predicts the state would spend $1.2 million annually just to maintain AB 2844’s blacklist.  There would be further costs as companies sue the state for breach of contract. Similar anti-free speech legislation is under discussion in twenty-two states. In New York, Governor Cuomo unilaterally signed a similar law and is being sued by the Center for Constitutional Rights for violating first amendment rights.

Boycott is protected free speech. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes established this in the 1929 case of US vs. Schwimmer. Ten years earlier, Holmes had ruled in Schneck v. the United States that freedom of speech can only be curtailed when there is a “clear and present danger” to the US. BDS is not a “clear and present danger” to the US.

Desperate actions to stifle free speech have also struck at universities and colleges. Palestinian Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights documented 152 incidents of free speech suppression on US campuses in 2014 alone.  When Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at UC Irvine protested the screening of Beneath the Helmet, a pro-Israeli Defense Forces film, they were condemned by the chancellor and referred to the district attorney for criminal investigation.  In 2010, pro-Palestinian activists at UC Irvine were sentenced to three years probation for interrupting a speech by then-Israeli ambassador Michael Oren. SJPs have been threatened with disaccredition, professors have been harassed, and even fired for exercising their first amendment rights. Professor Steven Salaita lost his tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois in 2014 after being accused of incivility in his personal tweets following Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Israeli advocacy groups have filed at least six complaints with the Department of Education asserting that tolerating campus events and protests critical of Israeli policies violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.  In 2011, five Olympia Food Co-op members sued sixteen of the Co-op’s board members for voting to boycott Israeli goods. All these suits failed even as they drained resources from pro-Palestinian organizations while generating negative publicity.

These frantic efforts have not stopped BDS. Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, South Africa, members of the EU and others have joined BDS in an effort to end the repression of Palestine by Israel. It’s time for America to be on the right side of history and stand up for free speech.

Sources: The Palestine Exception to Free Speech, KPFA news 6/7/16, 6/8/16, Flashpoints 8/29/16 and AB 2844.

Rebel Fagin writes for the Sonoma County Peace Press and Global Critical Medial Literacy Project (


Rebel Fagin is a writer who has been politically active in Sonoma County since the 1970’s. He writes regularly for the Sonoma County Peace Press and the Global Critical Media Literacy Project ( He has a book documenting nearly forty years of street activism in Sonoma County called Tales from the Perpetual Oppositional Culture – a Journey into Resistance. He lives in Santa Rosa, California and is active with many activists’ organizations.

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