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Anti-Free Speech Bill Stalled; Expected to be Reintroduced

It targets human rights activists, not hatred.

By Kate Gould, December 1, 2016

The so-called “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” would expand the definition of Title VI protection to include political criticism of Israel, threatening free speech.

UPDATE: The Senate passed the bill unanimously on December 1, 2016. The Roskam-Deutch companion bill in the House did not reach the floor. We were heartened to see the L.A. Times Editorial Board and the expansive Anti-Semitism definition's author came out against the bill. The bill is expected to be reintroduced in the 115th Congress, so please stay tuned for further updates.

At a time when truly anti-Semitic attacks are happening across the country, it is particularly dangerous to divert attention away from actual anti-Semitism.

The bill would help enable a crackdown on activists for voicing criticisms that, constitutionally, should be protected expression.

This legislation obligates the Departments of Education and Justice to use a definition of anti-Semitism that includes certain criticisms of Israel in assessing alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. These Departments would be obligated to use the definition, called the "State Department Definition," which defines it as anti-Semitic to “demonize Israel,” judge Israel by a “double standard,” and “delegitimize Israel.” The double standard language includes as examples of anti-Semitism: “multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations” or “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” The bill would help enable a crackdown on activists for voicing criticisms that, constitutionally, should be protected expression.

1) The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says the bill likely violates the 1st Amendment:

“If adopted and used as the basis for discipline by a public university system, the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism would likely violate the First Amendment by prohibiting protected expression.” – Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

2) An author of the definition opposes the bill, calling it "a direct affront to academic freedom":

“I write as the lead author of the EUMC’s “Working Definition on Antisemitism,” to encourage you not to move “The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016,” which essentially incorporates that definition into law for a purpose that is both unconstitutional and unwise. If the definition is so enshrined, it will actually harm Jewish students and have a toxic effect on the academy.” – Kenneth S. Stern, Executive Director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation

3) The L.A. Times Editorial Board said the bill would undermine free speech on campus:

“The U.S. Senate last week approved a bill that was advertised as a way to help the federal government combat harassment against Jewish students on college campuses. But the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act is both unnecessary to achieve its stated goal and fraught with 1st Amendment problems. If it is also approved by the House, President Obama should veto it.” – L.A. Times Editorial Board

Kate Gould

  • Legislative Director, Middle East Policy

Kate Gould served as FCNL's Legislative Director for Middle East Policy. Kate was one of only a handful of registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C. working to advance human rights objectives and support diplomatic solutions to resolve disputes between the U.S. and Iran and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Israel/Palestine.