LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- A federal appeals court on Friday ruled that Arkansas' law requiring state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel is unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge's 2019 decision that dismissed the lawsuit by the Arkansas Times challenging the requirement. The newspaper had asked the judge to block the law, which requires contractors with the state to reduce their fees by 20% if they don’t sign the pledge.
The court said the law is written so broadly that it would also apply to vendors that support or promote a boycott.
“The Act prohibits the contractor from engaging in boycott activity outside the scope of the contractual relationship ‘on its own time and dime,'" the court said in its 2-1 decision. “Such a restriction violates the First Amendment."
The Times’ lawsuit said the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College refused to contract for advertising with the newspaper unless the Arkansas Times signed the pledge. The newspaper isn’t engaged in a boycott against Israel.
The appeals panel sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who ruled in 2019 that refusing to purchase items wasn't protected speech by the First Amendment.
“Arkansas politicians had no business penalizing our clients for refusing to participate in this ideological litmus test," said Holly Dickson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, which represented the Times in the case. “Free speech isn’t a privilege you pay for, it’s a right guaranteed to every Arkansan.”
Arkansas’ law is similar to restrictions enacted in other states that have been challenged. The measures are aimed at a movement protesting Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. Similar measures in Arizona, Kansas and Texas that were blocked were later allowed to be enforced after lawmakers narrowed the requirement so it only applied to larger contracts. Arkansas’ law applies to contracts worth $1,000 or more.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office said she was reviewing the opinion to determine the next step.
“The Attorney General is disappointed in the Eighth Circuit’s decision, which interferes with Arkansas’s law banning discrimination against Israel, an important American ally," spokesperson Amanda Priest said in a statement.
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