graphic of Free Speech in State Legislatures

Federal judge strikes down Kansas anti-boycott law – January 2018

Wichita, KS

A public school teacher in Wichita, Kansas, was not allowed to join a Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) program because she refused to certify that she was not participating in a boycott against Israel. With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), she filed suit against the Kansas Commissioner of Education, alleging her First Amendment rights had been infringed upon. A federal judge ruled in her favor, declaring the Kansas law that had allowed this to occur unconstitutional.

Key Players

Esther Koontz is a public school math teacher and curriculum coach in Wichita, Kansas. She is also a member of the Mennonite church. In the early 2000s, Koontz traveled to the Israel/Palestine region. After witnessing what she considered unjust Israeli treatment of Palestinians, she considered taking part in a boycott of Israel. Then, in July 2017, the Mennonite church passed a resolution encouraging members to remedy injustices against Palestinians and Israelis, in part by boycotting goods produced in Israel. Koontz chose to participate in this boycott of Israeli goods and of companies that allegedly “profit from the violation of Palestinians’ rights.”

The Kansas State Legislature, in June 2017, passed HB 2409, which prohibited the state from doing business with individuals or companies that are “engaged in a boycott of Israel.” The bill also required all individuals and companies with which the state of Kansas does business to sign a written certification that they are not engaged in a boycott of Israel. Dozens of similar laws have popped up in state legislatures across the country over the last few years in response to the recent growth of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Further Details

In 2017, Koontz — who has worked as a teacher for over a decade — was selected by a KSDE program that allows veteran teachers to train other public school teachers throughout the state. She had completed the necessary training and scheduled her first sessions as a teacher trainer when she was contacted by a state employee who informed her that, in order to work in this capacity as a state contractor, she would need to sign a statement certifying she was not boycotting Israel. Koontz refused to sign the certification and thus was prevented from working in the KSDE teacher-trainer program.

In October 2017, the ACLU filed a suit against Kansas Commissioner of Education Randall D. Watson on Koontz’s behalf in United States District Court for the District of Kansas, alleging her First Amendment rights had been violated. The ACLU cited the 1982 Supreme Court decision NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., which ruled that the government cannot prohibit peaceful, politically-motivated boycotts.

In an article on the ACLU’s website, Koontz wrote, “I am challenging this law because I believe that the First Amendment protects my right, and the right of all Americans, to make consumer spending decisions based on their political beliefs.”

However, proponents of the bill argued its importance for Kansas’ economic well-being. “It’s in the best interest of Kansas to continue our strong partnership with Israel,” said State Representative William Sutton, a Republican.

Outcome

Federal judge rules Kansas anti-boycott law unconstitutional

In January 2018, a federal judge in Kansas ruled HB 2409 unconstitutional, as it infringed upon the First Amendment Free Speech rights of those who choose to boycott Israel. The decision reaffirmed the Supreme Court’s decision in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., noting that “the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects the right to participate in a boycott like the one punished by the Kansas law.”

External References

Kansas House votes to block contracting with Israel boycotters, The Wichita Eagle

The Constitutional Right to Boycott, The Atlantic

Kansas Is Punishing A Teacher for Following Her Church’s Guidance to Boycott Israel, The Intercept

In a Major Free Speech Victory, a Federal Court Strikes Down a Law that Punishes Supporters of Israel Boycott, The Intercept

Kansas Won’t Let Me Train Math Teachers Because I Boycott Israel, ACLU

Kansas State Legislature, HB 2409

KOONTZ V. WATSON — OPINION, ACLU

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Uploaded May 29, 2018