Anti-boycott laws run afoul of the free press

Legislators across 32 states force Americans to take a political side on a foreign-policy dilemma


The First Amendment is under attack. The formidable frontal assault came quietly, stealthily into state legislatures across the nation. The attackers wielded pens proving mightier than swords and signed laws that punish the refusal to sign a pledge of allegiance — not the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States; rather, a pledge of deference to a foreign government and a promise not to boycott the nation that government represents.

What’s more American than a boycott, Alan Leveritt pondered when he spoke with Editor & Publisher during a vodcast with E&P Publisher Mike Blinder back in December 2021. Leveritt had penned a Nov. 22, 2021, op-ed for The New York Times about a legal case he’s been waging against an obscure Arkansas state law that suppresses free speech and requires people and businesses who contract with the state to sign away their rights to “boycott,” a subjective term.

Leveritt cited the Boston Tea Party and the centuries-old tradition of boycotts, using rhetoric and the power of the purse strings to influence people, companies and even government.

Leveritt comes from a family of Arkansas farmers. “We're just white-trash farmers. I mean, that’s where we come from,” he explains in the new documentary film, “Boycott,” by Director Julia Bacha and the team at Just Vision, an award-winning production company.

Leveritt carries on that farming tradition today; in the film, he’s seen tending gardens and gathering eggs. But his day job — one that he's held for nearly 50 years — is serving as publisher of the Arkansas Times, a free, local news source he co-founded in his 20s. Since the beginning, the venture has been entirely advertising-supported, and a significant amount of it comes from state agencies, including the state university system.

“I was raised conservative, and I started moving to the left over the years. As a recovering conservative, I want to be left alone, you know? Do your job. You get your business on merit, and you get paid for it, and you don't pass some political litmus test. This is America,” he says in the film.

In 2017, when Arkansas quietly adopted a new law requiring state contractors to sign an anti-boycott pledge in support of Israel, it hardly made waves. The law, like others, is designed to suppress the international “BDS” movement directed at Israel, which stands for “boycott, divest and sanction.”

Initially, the proposed language in Arkansas was stark and severe, prohibiting the state from doing business with anyone who wouldn’t sign the pledge. Still, it was ultimately softened to allow the relationships but instead levy a 20% penalty on all their transactions.

In the movie "Boycott," Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times, sits with the staff, discussing monthly revenue and a deficit they needed to make up to meet their budget goal. Courtesy of Just Vision

For a while, the Arkansas Times went right on delivering news to its community, publishing state agency advertising and getting paid for it, until one payor pumped the brakes.

“So, I was surprised when in 2018 I received an ultimatum from the University of Arkansas’s Pulaski Technical College, a long-time advertiser. To continue receiving its ad dollars, we would have to certify in writing that our company was not engaged in a boycott of Israel. It was puzzling,” he explained in The New York Times op-ed. “Our paper focuses on the virtues of Sims Bar-B-Que down on Broadway — why would we be required to sign a pledge regarding a country in the Middle East?”

Leveritt remains astonished that other news publishers have signed these pledges in his state and others. With the help of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), he filed suit against the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees, challenging the law on the grounds that it violates both the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

“Let's be clear, states are trading their citizens’ First Amendment rights for what looks like unconditional support for a foreign government,” Leveritt said in his op-ed.

Plaintiffs take a stand

Bahia Amawi offers a public appeal to Texas legislators that they repeal the anti-boycott law based on its violation of the First Amendment. Courtesy of Just Vision

Bacha’s new documentary, “Boycott,” features Leveritt’s story and those of two other plaintiffs who are challenging nearly identical state laws. In six years, beginning in 2015, 32 states have enacted anti-boycott legislation, according to data provided by Palestine Legal.

Bacha’s work focuses on three plaintiffs — Leveritt; Bahia Amawi, a Palestinian-American teacher who lives and works in Austin, Texas; and Mik Jordahl, a legal counselor challenging the anti-boycott law in Arizona.

“The plaintiffs all represent different political backgrounds,” the filmmaker explained during a follow-up interview with Editor & Publisher (E&P). “They are motivated for different reasons, which really offers a tapestry of incredible diversity that is the United States. And people are willing to take enormous risks and sacrifice their potential livelihood to defend democracy.”

Leveritt’s case was distinctive in that he represented a news publisher.

“When we got to meet Alan, we knew that he was going to be a prominent person in the film because he’s a news publisher. There’s something so important about the role the media — particularly local journalism — plays in upholding our democracy in America,” Bacha said.

“I think many people will be moved, touched and motivated by Alan's story,” she said. “Boycott” is part of the Feb. 20 lineup at the Sedona International Film Festival in Arizona. The film may also be seen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Feb. 22 in Montana. See for future festival and screening dates.

An international lobby

"Boycott" director, Julia Bacha, speaks with former Arkansas state senator Bart Hester, who championed the anti-boycott legislation, citing his evangelical faith as justification. Courtesy of Just Vision

For “Boycott,” Bacha interviewed former Arkansas Senate Majority Leader Bart Hester, a Republican who introduced Arkansas Code (Annotated) 25-1-503. Hester said he sponsored the bill because “it was the right thing to do,” citing his evangelical beliefs and a desire to protect Israel's “chosen people.”

Alan Leveritt feels that anti-boycott legislation has gained traction across the states because of “evangelical Biblical literalism” — meaning, evangelical Christians are particularly protective of Israel because of its context to the Rapture. An estimated 100 million people in the United States identify as evangelical.

The bills also had some influential lobbying organizations behind them.

“There are a couple of key organizations that played outsized roles in ensuring that the bills were able to spread so quickly and with minimal public scrutiny over the past few years,” Bacha said, citing ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) and CUFI (Christians United for Israel). ALEC is the lobby behind stand-your-ground laws and restrictive voter-ID requirements. The anti-boycott legislation they've championed and managed to roll out to 30+ states is similar, with boiler-plate language — what's referred to as “model legislation” in policy circles.

With the help of Israeli journalist Itamar Benzaquen, the filmmaker also tracked the U.S. lobby for anti-BDS back to Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which strategized to co-opt U.S. lobbying organizations and endear U.S. legislators.

“Our goal when we started making the film, which very much remains our goal today, is to ring the alarm bells, for Americans to know that there is a significant threat to a fundamental right to boycott,” Bacha said.

Rolling out anti-boycott laws proved easy for lobbyists, and now there’s evidence that their methods are being modeled for other types of speech-damping laws. “There’s a law in Texas that went into effect in September 2021 that says, if you want public contracts, you cannot be divested from the firearms industry,” Bacha said. “So, this is an attempt to protect the firearms industry, and it looks like lobbying came from groups like the NRA. Similarly, Texas passed a law that says, if you want public contracts, you cannot be divested from fossil fuels.”

Giving federal cover to the states

ACLU attorney Brian Hauss is seen here on the far left, standing with colleagues and being interviewed for the documentary "Boycott." Hauss is one of the lead attorneys arguing the Arkansas Times' case. Courtesy of Just Vision

In “Boycott,” ACLU attorney Brian Hauss compared the lobby for anti-boycott laws to what happened in the wake of 9/11 and the dawn of the “war on terror.” He recalled how anyone who dared speak out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq was cast as anti-American or sympathetic to terrorists. Similarly, opponents of these anti-boycott laws are disparaged as anti-Semitic.

Because the term “boycott” is subjective, that will have a bearing on how these laws are enforced, Hauss explained during the E&P Reports panel. Generally, to boycott — a person, a business, a government, a nation — is “a collective withholding of patronage,” he explained.

Of course, at the Arkansas Times, Leveritt has no plans to “withhold patronage” from Israel, nor has his news outlet ever covered Israel, the Palestinians, nor the land they dispute. But that’s not the point.

“We don't take political positions in return for advertising. … The state does not dictate our political positions, period,” Leveritt said.

To help mitigate some of the lost revenues tied to enforcement of the Arkansas law, the Arkansas Times has had to retool its revenue model, relying on paid digital subscriptions for the first time in its history.

After the conversation with Leveritt, Hauss and Bacha, E&P welcomed publishers to let our editors know if they’d been required to sign similar pledges in their states. Leveritt expected to hear from other publishers, too, who'd surely be outraged by what they’d learned and how these laws imperil not just news publishers but any American who does business with the state.

“The silence was deafening,” Leveritt told E&P in a follow-up email. It is perplexing, given how typically collegial news publishers are.

Nor have any other news publishers reached out to Brian Hauss at the ACLU to inquire about the case and their own rights.

“I think it’s a combination of factors,” Hauss said. “I think they’re busy and dealing with all these forms, and they just send in whatever they need to sign to get the contract done. They’re not paying a tremendous amount of attention to all these subclauses that are getting stuck into their contract. I think there are also a fair number who don’t want to take a public position on this issue. They recognized that it’s a hot-button political issue and very polarizing, and on top of that, they don’t want to jeopardize their advertising contracts with state and local governments. … We really rely on the bravery and commitment of individuals like Alan to lead the charge.”

Alan Leveritt is the founder and publisher of the Arkansas Times. With ACLU attorney Brian Hauss, Leveritt is legally challenging a state law requiring him to sign a loyalty pledge to do unimpeded business with state agencies — for example, the University of Arkansas university system, a long-time and frequent advertiser. Courtesy of Just Vision

Leveritt said that he thought the case was slam-dunk and would “be over pretty quick,” but they lost. The state argued that a boycott is an economic action rather than protected speech, and therefore subject to its “regulation.” As a result, the Arkansas Times is assessed the 20% penalty on state-agency advertising. It has grossly impacted his bottom line and only compounds other revenue challenges they face. The case then went before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which ruled in Leveritt's favor; however, the Arkansas government successfully petitioned for en banc rehearing by the full court. Oral argument before the en banc court took place in September 2021. The parties await the court’s ruling.

Though these are state laws, anti-boycott language is being adopted at the highest echelons of government. For example, in a June 21, 2021, press release Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) lauded the Combating BDS Act of 2021, which he reintroduced with Senator Joseph Manchin (D-West Virginia).

“The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is the single most destructive campaign of economic warfare facing the Jewish state of Israel today,” Senator Rubio is quoted in the press release.

“The bipartisan Combating BDS Act is a step towards ensuring individual states have the right to pass laws that prevent business transactions with the anti-Israeli BDS movement,” Senator Manchin said via the press release.

E&P reached out to Senators Manchin and Rubio for further comment. Senator Manchin’s office declined to comment; Senator Rubio did not respond.

“Senator Rubio’s bill is really kind of a do-nothing bill that was just designed to lend rhetorical support to the state measures,” Hauss suggested.

Documentary filmmaker Julia Bacha. Photo by Maike Shultz, courtesy of Just Vision

Hauss and Bacha agree that the Combating BDS Act of 2021 is intended to give states the federal nod to enact these state-level bills.

“At the federal level, there’s much more scrutiny, so for them to pass an anti-boycott law that penalized people and businesses at the national level, there would be much more press coverage, much more attention and activism than at the state level, which unfortunately gets very little coverage,” Bacha said.

“But there is no legislation that Congress can pass that un-does the First Amendment. No matter how many laws they try to pass, this is still unconstitutional,” the documentarian concluded.

Gretchen A. Peck is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher. She's reported for E&P since 2010 and welcomes comments at


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