The Arkansas Times LP has filed a lawsuit against the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees over a recent state law, saying it violates the First and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution.
The law requires companies to sign a pledge to not boycott Israel in order to do business with the state. Contracts with a value less than $1,000 do not apply. If a company fails to pledge to not boycott Israel, it can still conduct business with the state, but at a rate that’s 20 percent less than the lowest certifying business.
Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times, says the law forces businesses to take a political stance, which is unconstitutional.
“You can’t require a business to take a political position in return for being able to do business with the state. That should be based on merit, not your politics and not your ideology,” Leveritt said.
Since it passed in 2017, Leveritt said the law had not been strictly enforced and the paper signed earlier contracts without signing the pledge.
“It’s been enforced very, very sporadically. We’ve gotten these notices before and we just ignored them and everyone’s gone about their business,” Leveritt said.
However when it came for a contract renewal with UA Pulaski Technical College, Leveritt says the school was more strict.
“The University of Arkansas, for some reason, has decided to really enforce this by the letter, which, I guess they should. I mean, it’s the law, but it’s a bad law. It’s unconstitutional,” Leveritt said.
According to Leveritt, the Arkansas Times and UAPTC have a great working relationship, it’s just that the school’s hands were tied.
The lawsuit lists all of the members of the University of Arkansas’ Board of Trustees as defendants in the case. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas is assisting with the case, filing the suit on Tuesday in the Arkansas Times’ behalf. The ACLU says the existing law suppresses one side of the public debate and imposes a tax on constitutionally protected free speech.
Rita Sklar, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas says it is fine to have differing political opinions, but when businesses are forced to pledge a certain political belief in order to conduct business with the state, it becomes unconstitutional.
“This law attempts to punish people who want to do business with the state, based on their political views and make them sign a piece of paper, tantamount to a loyalty oath of the McCarthy era, really, in order to contract with the state,” Sklar said.
Nate Hinkel, the director of communications for the University of Arkansas System, told KUAR in an emailed statement the university system does not comment on pending litigation, but is “well aware of the situation and because of the impact the case could have statewide, [they] have sought help from the Arkansas Attorney General’s office.”
A statement from the Attorney General’s office says Attorney General Leslie Rutledge “will be reviewing the complaint and motion to determine the next steps.”
The law was written and passed during the 2017 session of the Arkansas General Assembly. Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, co-wrote the law. He says it is a way for Arkansas to support Israel through its tax dollars.
Dotson says the law does not violate the first amendment, since businesses are not required to sign the pledge.
“There’s nothing forcing them to sign anything. They’re completely free to do whatever they’d like to do, They just don’t necessarily get to dictate to the state that the state must do business with them,” Dotson said.
Similar legislation has passed and in some cases, been struck down in other states. The ACLU has blocked such legislation in Kansas and Arizona.
In an interview with the Associated Press, State Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs said he planned to modify the legislation in the coming session that begins in January. In an email sent to KUAR, Hester said “we are not ready to talk about changes because they are not complete.” Hester also said the legislature will look to change the law in ways that bring it into compliance with other rulings.
Dotson says changing already passed laws is not an unusual occurrence in the legislature.
“I can’t tell you the number of laws that a couple years after we’ve passed the initial law, the bill’s sponsor is back…and saying ‘Hey, remember this law we passed? I need to change this comma or move that around because it wasn’t such a great idea for that sentence to be here,” Dotson said.
One possible route the Arkansas legislature may take is changing how much money a contract can be worth before the pledge applies. During the latest legislative session in Kansas, lawmakers modified the law, increasing the contract minimum to $100,000 as opposed to $1,000, causing it to affect fewer businesses in an attempt to salvage the law.
The next step for the lawsuit is for a judge to rule on an injunction that could temporarily prevent the state from enforcing this law before the case due in court.
KUAR is a part of The University of Arkansas System. The station's newsroom has editorial independence.