Freedom of speech. It’s a right so engrained in our psyche as Americans that we react viscerally to most attempts to curtail it.
But all speech is not free. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. observed in 1919: You can’t falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.
As a society, while we jealously guard the rights of others to spout opinions that are abhorrent, we tend not to give a blanket license to speech that is false or, worse, injurious. We also recognize that the right to free speech is something that can be bargained away, as most executives subject to contracts with their employers can attest.
So why the hubbub over Maryland legislators’ continuing effort to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel?
At its worst, BDS spreads the canard that Israel is promulgating apartheid over the Palestinians. The false charge effectively endangers the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians in that it encourages international isolation of Israel, which in itself emboldens Palestinian intransigence.
At its best, however, BDS seems to be animated by an insidious form of anti-Semitism, holding the Jewish state alone to account for a variety of alleged misdeeds regularly committed by the most “civilized” of nations.
That is why most of the Jewish community has mobilized behind the anti-BDS effort in Annapolis, which now seeks to enact legislation that would prevent companies that participate in the BDS movement from investing in the state retirement and pension system, as well as prohibit those companies from securing state procurement contracts. To be sure, there are opponents, including such groups as Baltimore Palestine Solidarity and Jewish Voice for Peace.
As you’ll read in this week’s JT, these groups view the legislation through a primarily free speech lens. JVP volunteer Jodie Zisow-McClean, for instance, contends the bills in question would silence her right to speak out against what she says are Israeli injustices in the West Bank.
The legislation’s supporters, including the Baltimore Jewish Council and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, disagree. “House Bill 949 is simply an exercise of Maryland’s proprietary power to spend or invest state funds in a manner that reflects the moral and economic interests of the people of the state of Maryland,” the Zachor Legal Institute, a nonprofit foundation that specializes in constitutional law, wrote in testimony it submitted as part of hearings on the issue at the General Assembly.
From what I can tell, no one is challenging Zisow-McClean’s right to her opinion, nor to her right to voice it. What seems to be at issue is whether or not Maryland has to invest in it. Seen from that angle, it might be best for the government of the Free State to limit the damage done to Israel by a movement bent on its destruction.