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Does bill against Israel boycott pose threat to academic freedom?

A bill in Congress that would prohibit U.S. persons or companies from participating in or supporting boycotts of Israel organized by international governmental organizations like the United Nations or the European Union has been roundly criticized by civil liberties groups as an infringement on First Amendment rights to free expression.

The Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which enjoys wide bipartisan support and has 48 cosponsors in the Senate, isn’t directly focused on higher education, but opponents of the bill say it would have implications for scholars and academic organizations to the extent they’re involved in boycott-related activism — as many individual academics and some academic groups are. Although the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against the country of Israel, supported by many academics and others, is organized by nongovernmental organizations and seemingly would not fall under the purview of the bill, opponents of the legislation say BDS supporters could be ensnared by it if they, as part of their activism, participated in or otherwise supported a boycott organized by an international governmental body like the United Nations.

“This bill would impose civil and criminal punishment on individuals solely because of their political beliefs about Israel and its policies,” the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a July 17 letter opposing the bill. Those penalties, the ACLU wrote, could include civil fines of up to $250,000 or criminal penalties of up to $1 million and a 20-year prison sentence.

“There are millions of businesses and individuals who do no business with Israel, or with companies doing business there, for a number of reasons,” the ACLU wrote. “Some, like those who would face serious financial penalties and jail time under the bill, actively avoid purchasing goods or services from companies that do business in Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories because of a political viewpoint opposed to Israeli…

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