By Kevin Gosztola
May 24, 2021
A federal court ruled in favor of journalist Abby Martin, who was barred from speaking at Georgia Southern University after she refused to pledge she would not boycott Israel.
Judge Mark Cohen in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia recognized [PDF] a Georgia state law requiring certification is not “narrowly tailored,” “burdens Martin’s speech,” and she has a valid claim that her rights were violated.
However, it also found three of the university officials Martin sued were immune from prosecution because in their “individual capacity” they supposedly could not have known the law was unconstitutional or “beyond debate.”
“I am thrilled at the judge’s decision to strike down this law that so clearly violates the free speech rights of myself and so many others in Georgia,” Martin, the host of “Empire Files,” declared. “My First Amendment rights were restricted on behalf of a foreign government, which flies in the face of the principles of freedom and democracy.”
“The government of Israel has pushed state legislatures to enact these laws only because they know that sympathy and support for the population they brutalize, occupy, ethnically cleanse, and subject to apartheid is finally growing in popular consciousness.”
Martin added, “They want to hold back the tide of justice by preemptively restricting the right of American citizens to peacefully take a stand against their crimes.”
Yet in states like Arkansas, Arizona, Kansas, Texas, and now Georgia, federal courts have deemed these laws inappropriately prohibit certain speech.
On July 9, 2019, Georgia Southern University invited Martin to speak at the 2020 International Critical Media Literacy Conference.
A week after Martin accepted the invitation to participate as a keynote speaker, university officials sent her an agreement. They would offer a $1,000 honorarium and cover travel and lodging expenses. However, Martin had to sign a pledge.
“You certify that you are not currently engaged in, and agree for the duration of this agreement, not to engage in a boycott of Israel,” the pledge stated.
Martin told university officials, “I’m sure you know, a lot of my work advocates the boycott of Israel, and my new film features that call to action. I cannot sign any form promising not to boycott Israel.”
She was blocked from speaking at the university, and the conference was subsequently canceled.
In 2020, Martin sued Steve Wrigley, chancellor of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, and Kyle Marrero, the president of Georgia Southern University, in their official capacities. She also sued three conference services staff members at the university: Michel Blitch, Bonnie Overstreet, and Sandra Lensch, who were involved in planning the conference.
According to the court decision, the Georgia law implicates Martin’s rights to freedom of speech and is discriminatory.
“Even assuming that Georgia’s interest in furthering foreign policy goals regarding relations with Israel is a substantial state interest, defendants fail to explain how Martin’s advocacy of a boycott of Israel has any bearing on Georgia’s ability to advance foreign policy goals with Israel,” the court contended.
Furthermore, as the court outlined “The certification requirement forces parties contracting with the state of Georgia to publicly assign a motive and speech element to what defendants deem merely economic conduct. The certification that one is not engaged in a boycott of Israel is no different than requiring a person to espouse certain political beliefs or to engage in certain political associations.”
State laws like the one in Georgia demand contractors like Martin pledge their loyalty to the Israeli government if they would like payment of $1,000 or more from state institutions.
Just like a federal court previously ruled in Arizona, restricting a person or company’s ability to participate in collective calls to oppose Israel “unquestionably burdens” protected expression under the First Amendment.
The lawsuit was brought by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) chapter in Georgia and the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF). They called it a “major victory.”
“Israel’s latest violent onslaught against Palestinians underscores the importance of advocacy for Palestinian human rights,” proclaimed CAIR Senior Litigation Attorney Gadeir Abbas. “By standing up against this illegal anti-BDS law, Abby Martin ensures that all Americans have the freedom to stand up for Palestine.”
“As the world watches Israeli aggression continue in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and against the population it besieges in Gaza, it has never been more urgent to advance the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli regime,” Martin concluded. “The striking of this law is a necessary and timely opening to build this urgent task.”