The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She lost her school job after refusing to sign a pro-Israel pledge. Now, she’s filing a lawsuit.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman/AP)

Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist who has worked as a contractor in a Texas school district for nine years, received a new contract agreement to sign in September for the upcoming school year.

The agreement asked her to affirm that she did not boycott Israel and assert that she would not while working for the school.

She declined to sign it. Amawi, an American citizen of Palestinian descent who was born in Austria, said the statements infringed on her principles: her stance on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and her belief in the First Amendment. So she was forced to stop working with the district.

The contract, which stems from a 2017 law passed by the state’s Republican-held legislature and governor that prohibited state agencies from contracting with companies boycotting Israel, is the subject of a lawsuit filed this week by Amawi in federal district court in Austin.

Amawi says the state’s enforcement of the law violates her right to free speech.

“My first reaction was shock,” Amawi told reporters Monday. “Why is the government restricting me from boycotting a certain entity?”

Amawi started working for the Pflugerville Independent School District outside Austin in 2009. Her work entails doing evaluations of Arabic-speaking children, according to the complaint she filed. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the school district are named in the lawsuit.

In a statement posted on Facebook, the district said it was bound by the recently passed Texas state law, which it cast in a negative light.

“This language is required by the State of Texas for all school districts in Texas, along with other governmental entities,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, Pflugerville ISD and all Texas school districts are at the mercy of the state and the regulations printed into law, and in situations such as this, we are forced to spend time on state political issues and not on our core mission — educating students."

Texas passed the law in 2017, part of a wave of states that have passed legislation requiring that state agencies not do business with companies that support the “BDS movement” (for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) to boycott Israeli goods.

The bill’s language has been interpreted so broadly that the application for some grants for victims of Hurricane Harvey included a similar provision, drawing rebukes from local officials and the American Civil Liberties Union.

It is not clear whether other states' laws have been written or interpreted in a way to include contractors such as Amawi.

“Texas’ ban on contracting with any boycotter of Israel constitutes viewpoint discrimination that chills constitutionally-protected political advocacy in support of Palestine,” Amawi’s complaint states.

Fred O. Smith, a constitutional law expert at Emory University, cited two Supreme Court precedents: a 1996 case that found that it was unconstitutional for government officials to retaliate against independent contractors for their speech, as well as 1976 ruling, Elrod v. Burns, that found it unconstitutional for governments to refuse to hire people for their political views, in most circumstances.

“These principles taken together strongly suggest that refusing to renew a contract of someone who wishes to advocate a political position raises very serious constitutional concerns under those Supreme Court precedents,” Smith said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) tweeted his support for Israel on Monday as news of Amawi’s lawsuit began to circulate.

“Texas stands with Israel,” he wrote. “Period.”

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Glenn Greenwald, a columnist and co-founding editor of the Intercept who writes frequently about Israeli politics as they intersect with those of the United States, wrote harshly of the contract.

“The language of the affirmation Amawi was told she must sign reads like Orwellian — or McCarthyite — self-parody, the classic political loyalty oath that every American should instinctively shudder upon reading,” he wrote. “In order to continue to work, Amawi would be perfectly free to engage in any political activism against her own country, participate in an economic boycott of any state or city within the U.S., or work against the policies of any other government in the world — except Israel.”

Amawi said that she made the decision for her own values, but also to serve as an example for her four children, telling the Intercept that she did not consider signing the pledge in order to keep her work.

“I couldn’t in good conscience do that,” she said. “If I did, I would not only be betraying Palestinians suffering under an occupation that I believe is unjust and thus become complicit in their repression, but I’d also be betraying my fellow Americans by enabling violations of our constitutional rights to free speech and to protest peacefully.”

Amawi’s lawsuit says she’s seeking an injunction that will strike the “No boycott of Israel” clause from school contracts, as well as others statewide, and pay her “reasonable costs” and attorney’s fees.

“The point of boycotting any products that support Israel is to put pressure on Israeli government to change its treatment, the inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people,” she told the Intercept.

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