The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 15 other journalism groups in a court filing Monday said the editorial independence of news outlets is endangered by an Arkansas law requiring companies to either pledge to not boycott Israel as part of state business contracts or offer a discount on goods and services.
The organizations asked the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to submit a friend of the court brief supporting an appeal by the Arkansas Times, a monthly news magazine and website challenging the state law.
The Times, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, filed a lawsuit against the 10-member University of Arkansas board of trustees claiming lost advertising revenue and challenging the state law as unconstitutional. But Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller dismissed the lawsuit, and the Times is appealing the judge's order.
Journalism groups joining in the filing Monday include the Society of Professional Journalists -- which describes itself as "the nation's most broad-based journalism organization" -- the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the National Newspaper Association.
The nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press dates to 1970 and provides legal resources "to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists," according to the filing.
The legal brief submitted for review states that Arkansas law Act 710 "places an outlet in an impossible position."
The brief states that a news outlet, by either certifying that it does not boycott Israel or choosing to not sign such a pledge, "could be seen as taking a position on a fraught matter of great public interest, which it has covered or may one day wish to cover."
In its lawsuit, the Arkansas Times stated it has never boycotted Israel nor editorialized in favor of a boycott.
But by requiring the Times to either sign off on the pledge or not, "the government has used economic regulation to do what it could not come close to attempting directly -- interfering with the editorial independence of a member of the news media," the brief states.
The brief makes clear that arguments from the journalism groups "do not opine on the nature of the boycott, nor its constitutional status," but instead are about how "the effect of this measure, as applied to members of the news media, interferes with the actual or perceived editorial independence of a news outlet."
The brief goes on to argue that such effects on news organizations violate the First Amendment.
Act 710 of 2017 is similar to laws passed in more than 20 states. A sponsor of the law, state Sen. Bart Hester, a Republican from Cave Springs, in December told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that "it's always the right thing to be in the position of defending Israel."
There is a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement described by a 2017 Congressional Research Service report as "a loose grouping of actors from various countries who advocate or engage in economic measures against Israel" or related organizations and individuals. Those supporting the movement "generally express sympathy for the Palestinian cause," the report states.
In December, Hester said: "My position is they have the right to boycott Israel all they want. They're just not going to be able to do it and do business with Arkansas."
The law states that the pledge requirement does not apply to contracts of less than $1,000 or to a company that "offers to provide the goods or services for at least twenty percent (20%) less than the lowest certifying business."
Act 710 of 2017 defines a "boycott of Israel" as meaning "engaging in refusals to deal, terminating business activities, or other actions that are intended to limit commercial relations with Israel, or persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories, in a discriminatory manner."
The brief filed Monday cites additional parts of the law to argue that, based on a "plain reading" interpretation, the law "would indirectly accomplish what it clearly would be barred from doing directly -- preventing the Times from editorializing in support of a boycott of Israel, or running advertisements supporting a boycott of Israel."
Metro on 04/16/2019