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Americans Have a Right to Boycott, Even If It’s Wrong

Rand Paul argues that Congress’s anti-BDS legislation violates the First Amendment.
Rand Paul

I am not in favor of boycotting Israel. Israel has been a good ally. I have traveled to Israel, and it was one of the best and most meaningful trips I have taken with my family. Standing at the Western Wall was special and powerful. Visiting old Jerusalem was incredible, and sailing on the sea of Galilee while a double rainbow glowed above us is something I will never forget. Israel is truly a unique and special place.

I also agree with both supporters of Israel and PLO leaders that a boycott has the potential to hurt both Israel and the Palestinians.

At the same time, I am concerned about what the role of Congress can and should be in this situation. I strongly oppose any legislation that attempts to ban boycotts or ban people who support boycotts from participating in our government or working for our government.

I firmly believe we have to be very careful what powers we exercise in government—and think through whether or not we would want them used if the situation were different.

We must be very, very careful here to not let our dislike for something cloud our judgment in our roles as legislators and what powers we grant to Congress and to government in general.

America is the land of freedom of expression, and the hallmark of a truly free country is that it allows expressions, speech, and actions that we do not agree with. By all means, opponents of boycotting Israel should be heard—but so should their opponents. Legislation to end boycotts goes against the very principles America was founded upon.

America is distinguished by dissent and dissenters. It was founded amidst a boycott of English tea. Abolitionists boycotted slave goods. Rosa Parks led the boycott against segregated busing.

The bus boycott lasted for 382 days in 1955 and 1956. The protest was set off by denying Rosa Parks a seat in the “white” section. Thousands of black men and women boycotted the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system in an attempt to end segregation.

It was their right, and the right of those from Ralph Abernathy to E.D. Nixon to Martin Luther King, to lead these protests.

But throughout the more than year-long protest, the homes of Dr. King and Mr. Nixon were bombed. And on a single day in 1956, over 80 leaders of the protest were indicted on “conspiracy” charges in an attempt to stop the boycotts.

This was wrong, but we don’t fully understand the way the rule of law and our freedoms work if we think it was wrong because we agreed with their boycott.

It was wrong regardless of what was being protested and what was being boycotted. The law shouldn’t be used to shut down protests or boycotts, no matter what the dispute involves.

Courts have ruled on this as well, notably in NAACP v Claiborne Hardware Co. The court held that the economic boycott of white-owned businesses by blacks was entitled to First Amendment protection, as should be the case. It argued that a “non-violent, politically motivated boycott” was political speech and protected. I agree fully.

Whether or not to support a boycott depends on the merits of the argument. Whether or not to allow boycotts should be independent of the merits of the boycott. The First Amendment is about speech you like and speech you don’t like. If anything, it is more about protecting unpopular speech or the speech of minorities, whether they be a minority by the color of their skin or the shade of their ideology.

Let’s hope calmer heads prevail. Let’s hope Congress votes against limiting boycotts or free speech of any kind.

Rand Paul is the junior U.S. senator from Kentucky and a Republican.



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