ACLU sues over Kansas law that targets Israel boycotts

TOPEKA, Kan. — The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of a teacher challenging Kansas' new law barring state contractors from participating in boycotts against Israel, saying it's a clear violation of her free speech rights.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Esther Koontz, a math and science curriculum coach at a Wichita public school, seeks to overturn a law that took effect July 1 and prohibits the state from entering into contracts with individuals or companies participating in a boycott of Israel. Twenty-one states have such policies, from liberal California to conservative strongholds such as Alabama and Texas; in Kansas, the measure had strong bipartisan support.

States have enacted their laws in recent years amid an increasingly visible movement protesting Israel's policies toward Palestinians. Backers of boycotting Israeli companies argue that they're defending Palestinians' human rights, while boycott critics contend the goal is to destroy the Jewish state.

"The government does not get to use its leverage to silence one side of the debate," Brian Hauss, an ACLU attorney, told The Associated Press. The ACLU is asking to have enforcement of the law blocked while the case proceeds.

Supporters of the Kansas law argue that it doesn't prevent people from protesting Israel's policies or boycotting Israeli companies but just requires them to forgo state contracts if they do. Supporters contend the state has the right to choose its contractors.

State Rep. Randy Powell, a conservative Olathe Republican who pushed for the law, said he's confident that it's constitutional.

During the Kansas Legislature's debate earlier this year, state officials also described Israel as an important trading partner, with Kansas exporting $56 million worth of products there in 2016 while buying $83 million worth. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback made an unpublicized visit to Israel in late August and early September, during which he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Boycotts of Israel are really a discriminatory effort by a few people who aren't necessarily interested in a peaceful resolution in the Middle East," said Jacob Millner, Midwest regional director for the Israel Project.

But Dima Khalidi, executive director of Palestine Legal, a group supporting pro-Palestinian advocates, said the Israel government and pro-Israel groups unfairly attempt to paint boycott backers as radicals or terrorism supporters.

The lawsuit says Koontz, who lives about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Wichita in north Newton, is a Mennonite and the wife of a pastor. She decided to boycott Israeli products and services to "support the Palestinians' struggle for equality."

In July, a Mennonite Church USA convention voted to sell its holdings in companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, joining the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ in approving such divestment measures.

A Kansas State Department of Education official told Koontz in August that she could not be paid as a teacher trainer. The lawsuit names the department's head, Education Commissioner Randy Watson, as the defendant.

"This lawsuit is a really important step to make sure that our right to dissent is protected," Khalidi said.

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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