Dickinson, TX — Government suppression of free speech can take many forms. It’s not always censorship in the media or storm troopers in the streets bashing in the heads of protesters. For proof of this, one need look no further than Dickinson, Texas.
The small coastal town southeast of Houston took some of the worst Hurricane Harvey had to offer, with almost 7,400 homes damaged — many of them beyond repair. In response, the city council decided to set up a relief fund. People can donate to the city, and then a committee distributes the money to residents on a case-by-case basis.
As it clearly states in published minutes of the October 10 meeting of the Dickinson city council — the meeting where the program was discussed — taxpayer funding is not an issue because “no City dollars are being spent or received.” Individuals donate to the city, and the city allots that money to hurricane victims.
The city government appears to be acting as nothing more than a go-between, a means by which to connect people who need help with people willing to give it. But apparently, due to a recent law passed in Texas, the city is requiring people to make a pledge before they can receive any aid — one that cuts straight to the heart of free speech.
Right in the grant application, The Dickinson city council says residents cannot participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel. From that form:
“By executing this Agreement below, the Applicant verifies that the Applicant: (1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”
If it sounds to you like a governmental body is requiring citizens to adhere to a particular political ideology before they can receive aid following a natural disaster, then your hearing is just fine. That’s what the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also heard, and they felt obliged to say something about it. From a press release on Thursday:
“The city of Dickinson, Texas, is requiring applicants for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds to certify in writing that they will not take part in a boycott of Israel. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the city’s condition as a violation of free speech rights.”
Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas, says the pledge reminds him of another time in America’s past:
“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression. Dickinson’s requirement is an egregious violation of the First Amendment, reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths requiring Americans to disavow membership in the Communist party and other forms of ‘subversive’ activity.”
As the ACLU points out in its press release, the Dickinson city council appears to be trying to enforce a Texas law passed in May that forbids government agencies from contracting with companies that boycott Israel. Text from Section 1 of House Bill 89 is almost identical to the provision in the Dickinson application form.
Dickinson’s city attorney told local KTRK the council was only following the law, though how exactly a law pertaining to companies contracting with state agencies applies to a city council handing out publicly donated money remains unclear. After all, as the council itself stated, “no City dollars are being spent or received.”
Local attorney Randy Kallinen says the ACLU is right on target.
“The application clearly requires people to have a certain political expression in order to get government benefits,” he told KTRK.
Kallinen also pointed out the obvious fact that people recovering from a natural disaster shouldn’t be required to pledge themselves to anything — let alone stipulations from a government body — other than putting their lives back together.
“Conditioning the much-needed relief from Harvey and other disasters upon adopting a certain political position is really something that is very distracting and slows down the process of rebuilding after Harvey,” he said.
Make no mistake, this is suppression of free speech. The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that people have a constitutionally protected right to boycott under the First Amendment. If restrictions similar to what is happening in Dickinson are allowed to stand, how long will it be before it becomes routine practice for governments — even local ones — try to tell you what you can and can’t think?
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