As a law-abiding, educated citizen, I never thought that a law would put my job at stake. The 2018 school year started like every other school year. I began with signing my annual contract—a duplicate of the year before—to work with Pflugerville Independent School District, in Texas, as a bilingual Arabic speech-language pathologist. I was then immediately scheduled for evaluations with my Early Childhood team to evaluate kids not yet in preschool.
Around two weeks after I signed that original contract, my supervisor sent me an email explaining that an addendum had been added to the contract that year, one she herself had not yet seen, and I needed to look over and sign it. As I reviewed the lengthy, jargon-filled papers, they at first appeared to be about agreements to the usual regulations, such as the Clean Air and Water Act, Equal Employment Opportunity, and so on. But when I glanced down at the bottom part of the contract, I saw a different word: Israel. I paused, thinking I had misread it. But after I looked closer and saw the word Israel more clearly, I let out a surprised scream. My kids came rushing downstairs to see what had happened and if I was okay. I asked them if they saw the word Israel too, or if it was just my imagination. They looked just as surprised as me, read the paragraph and confirmed, "Yep, that's the word 'Israel.'"
My immediate thought was, "What does Israel have to do with my job as an elementary speech-language pathologist in Pflugerville, Texas?" I continued reading the clause, titled "Pursuant to Section 2270.001 of Texas Government Code," which asked me to affirm that I currently "do not boycott" or "will not boycott" the state of Israel while I am contracting with the school district. I immediately messaged my supervisor and informed her that I could not sign the clause because it was against my principles and my First Amendment right of free speech. My supervisor responded, telling me to just cross over it and then initial, adding that she would try to figure it out.
My immediate thought was, "What does Israel have to do with my job as an elementary speech-language pathologist in Pflugerville, Texas?"
- Bahia Amawi
Another two weeks passed before I received a phone call from my supervisor, regrettably informing me that the school district said that if I did not sign that part of the contract, then I would not be able to return to work. At that moment, I lost my job, and special education children in Texas lost a service. For over nine years, I was the only bilingual Arabic speech therapist in the Pflugerville area. My position was crucial because children referred to a speech pathologist are required to be evaluated in their native language to make sure they are diagnosed correctly. However, due to the law in Texas, those children no longer had access to this service.
I learned that the law, officially H.B. 89, had just been passed in the summer of 2018. Unfortunately, the bill went largely undetected by the public before it became law. No normal citizen is usually aware of the many laws that get passed every session by the Texas legislature, and even sometimes unrelated bills are combined intentionally so they can pass easily and avoid public scrutiny.
I was shocked that the government of Texas was so easily willing to compromise Texans' free speech to protect the economy of a foreign government—and that the very country built on boycotts and the right to free speech stripped me of my own. I felt attacked on two fronts. As an American citizen, I was angry that my constitutional right of free speech was denied because I did not share the same view as Texas politicians. As a Palestinian, I was angry because this was yet another attempt to dehumanize and delegitimize the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. I could not allow the government of Texas to silence me, to censor me, to bully me into compliance of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land, or strip me from my entitled rights as an American citizen. With my kids watching and the support of my husband, I sued the state of Texas with the help of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. (Editor's note: CAIR's executive director and co-founder, Nihad Awad, is a board member of DAWN.) It was important for me to set an example to my four Palestinian-American children that we too are just as American as everyone else, that no one is allowed to deny us our natural right of free speech, and that it is important to advocate for ourselves.
I was thrilled when we finally got our day in court in March 2019. My entire Muslim community and friends came to support me and my family. The courtroom filled to the brim; I was astonished by the amount of attention it attracted and extremely pleased by the outpouring of support I received from my community, from strangers nationally, and from all over the world. My case was immediately relatable to anyone whether they shared my political view or not, because everyone understood that the right to boycott was protected free speech in the United States and had been historically essential to the many political and social changes in America going back to the colonial era. This law not only affected Palestinian activists, but every Texan. In one city in Texas, survivors of Hurricane Harvey were required to sign this egregious law of solidarity to Israel before being allowed to receive relief funds. College students judging a debate tournament were denied payment unless they too agreed to sign this law.
It's time to put an end to a law that two judges have now ruled to be unconstitutional. Free speech rights in Texas, and across the U.S., are at stake.
- Bahia Amawi
Once the court hearing was completed, I felt satisfied that I did all I could on my part. I was obviously hoping for deliberation in our favor, but even if it wasn't, I still would have felt successful, because I did the right thing by taking a stand and bringing attention to this heinous law that attacked me, my kids, my family and every Texans' constitutional rights.
In April 2019, as I was dropping my kids off to their Taekwondo tournament, I heard my phone buzzing repeatedly. After I parked, I checked my phone and I saw messages from my CAIR lawyers and my husband informing me that the federal judge had decided in our favor. I sat in the car alone for a little, gave thanks to God and cried tears of joy.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman's 56-page decision could not have been clearer on how H.B. 89 violated the First Amendment. He said that "BDS boycotts are not only inherently expressive, but as a form of expression on a public issue, rest on 'the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.'" He further added that H.B. 89 "is a content- and viewpoint-based restriction on speech. It is a content-based restriction because it singles out speech about Israel, not any other country." But my favorite quote of all from his deliberation was that "no amount of narrowing its application will cure its constitutional infirmity."
Despite this ruling against the law, Texas politicians still amended H.B. 89, showing absolutely no respect to the judge's authority or knowledge, and no regard to the very constitution they swore to protect. Instead, in the amended version, H.B. 793, they only changed who was impacted—companies, instead of individuals—and they did not address the restriction on boycott and free speech. Taking cues from Texas, dozens of other U.S. states with conservative legislatures have introduced their own bills against boycotting Israel, despite violating the First Amendment.
Another lawsuit challenging the rewritten law in Texas has since reached a different district court in the state, filed against the city of Houston and the state of Texas by CAIR on behalf of A&R Engineering and Testing Inc., an engineering firm that was unable to renew its contract with the city because it refused to sign the state-imposed oath against boycotting Israel. In late January, U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen ruled that H.B. 793 violated the company's free speech rights under the First Amendment. But the state has appealed the ruling to one of the most conservative appeals courts in the nation: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
I am elated that someone else has continued where I left off, and I hope the judge's verdict is upheld. It's time to put an end to a law that two judges have now ruled to be unconstitutional. Free speech rights in Texas, and across the U.S., are at stake.