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Arkansas newspaper sues over no-boycott pledge for vendors

By ANDREW DeMILLODecember 11, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas newspaper asked a federal judge Tuesday to strike down a state law that requires government contractors to pledge to not boycott Israel or reduce their fees by 20 percent.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas challenged the law on behalf of the Arkansas Times LP, which says the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College refused to contract for advertising with the newspaper unless the Arkansas Times signed the pledge. According to the lawsuit, Arkansas Times had previously contracted for years with the technical college. The paper is not engaged in any boycott against Israel, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit argues the requirement violates the U.S. Constitution and imposes an “ideological litmus test” on contractors.

“As journalists, we are fervent believers that the First Amendment’s speech protections are essential to a free and just society - and would never sign a contract that’s conditioned on the unconstitutional suppression of free speech,” Alan Leveritt, publisher and CEO of Arkansas Times, said in a statement. “Regardless of what people may think about this particular boycott, it is not the government’s place to decide what causes Arkansans can or cannot support.”

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office said she was reviewing the complaint and would determine the next steps.

The newspaper is also seeking a preliminary injunction blocking the state from enforcing the law. In its request for a preliminary injunction, ACLU’s attorneys compared the pledge to requiring government employees in the Cold War to swear they weren’t members of the Communist Party.

“This law imposes an unconstitutional tax on free speech,” Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director, said in a statement. “The state has no business telling Arkansans what causes they can or can’t support - or penalizing them for holding a particular point of view.”

Arkansas’ law is similar to restrictions enacted in other states. A federal judge in September blocked Arizona from enforcing a similar measure. A federal judge also blocked Kansas from enforcing its anti-boycott measure, but lawmakers rewrote the measure so that it no longer applied to individuals and nonprofits and only applied to state contracts worth $100,000 or more. Arkansas’ law applies to contracts worth $1,000 or more.

A state senator who sponsored Arkansas’ restriction said he also planned to call for changes to the state’s law, but declined to detail the proposed modifications.

“I think this lawsuit will be moot in a short amount of time,” Republican Sen. Bart Hester said.

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