Want State Business? Stay on Israel's Side

Want State Business? Stay on Israel's Side

Arkansas Business Publishing Group is not boycotting Israel. It has no plans to, and it has no particular issue with pledging not to boycott Israel for the duration of several advertising contracts with the state of Arkansas.

But that doesn’t mean the state should dictate publishers’ views on Israel or any other foreign policy issue through laws governing state dealings with vendors. The Arkansas Times, which lost ad business with the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College after rejecting pro-Israel language in an ad contract, is suing to neuter the state law requiring it.

The Times, a free-distribution Little Rock weekly that’s turning into a glossy monthly, joined with the American Civil Liberties Union last week in a suit contending that the law violates the U.S. Constitution and subjects state contractors to an “ideological litmus test.”

Never mind that the Arkansas Times is not boycotting Israel and hasn’t favored any boycott. “As journalists, we are fervent believers that the First Amendment’s speech protections are essential to a free and just society, and would never sign a contract that’s conditioned on the unconstitutional suppression of free speech,” Times Publisher Alan Leveritt said in a statement.

“Regardless of what people may think about this particular boycott, it is not the government’s place to decide what causes Arkansans can or cannot support,” he added.

Arkansas Business Publisher Mitch Bettis noted that purchase orders with the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville refer to the law, which was designed to support Israel by directing all state business to vendors pledging to stand against critics of its treatment of the Palestinians.

The “Prohibition Against Boycotting Israel” contract section names Ark. Code Ann. § 25-1-503 and requires state vendors to certify that they won’t engage in a boycott of Israel.

“A breach of this certification will be considered a material breach of contract,” the language says.

Lynn Hamilton, general manager of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, told Arkansas Business that he had learned “someone in our business office did sign a similar agreement with a different advertiser in December 2017 for an ad that ran one time.”

He said he hadn’t previously known about the agreement. “Management has made no company-wide decision regarding this law.”

The Democrat-Gazette is the flagship of the Wehco Media Inc. newspaper chain, and Hamilton said he had no information on whether the company’s other papers have made similar pledges. Hamilton said the University of Arkansas has not required the Democrat-Gazette to make a no-boycott vow in order to retain advertising.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge told news outlets that she’s looking into the complaint, which was filed last week against the 10 members of the UA board of trustees.

Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, said that beyond the suit by the Arkansas Times, a member of her trade organization, she had heard few concerns about the law. “We obviously support a member’s right to challenge the constitutionality of the law,” she told Arkansas Business. “We hope there’s a legislative fix, but if not, we look forward to seeing a resolution from the litigation.”

The ACLU came out swinging, as usual, seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of the law. “This law imposes an unconstitutional tax on free speech,” said a statement by Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas.

“The state has no business telling Arkansans what causes they can or can’t support or penalize them for holding a particular point of view,” Sklar said.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has praised 20 states for enacting similar laws, though federal judges in Kansas and Arizona blocked enforcement of those states’ requirements. Kansas changed its legislation to exempt the party who sued, short-circuiting the challenge.

A sponsor of the Arkansas law, state Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, plans to tinker with it when the Legislature convenes next month. But he insists the law’s goal — shoring up support for Israel — is a legitimate concern for state government. “It’s always the right thing to be in the position of defending Israel,” Hester told the Democrat-Gazette.

That’s just an opinion, of course.

Another view is that Arkansas’ pledge requirement is a solution in search of a problem, intruding on businesses’ rights to stay neutral on public issues that might offend stakeholders or potential customers.