Arkansas Times Publisher Alan Leveritt.
FIGHTING FOR THE FIRST AMENDMENT: Arkansas Times Publisher Alan Leveritt. Brian Chilson

Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times, writes for the ACLU website on why the publication has sued to contest an Arkansas law meant to discourage state business with people who won’t sign a pledge not to boycott Israel.

Such laws have been successfully challenged in other states. As I’ve said before, we’ve never written editorially on Israel-Palestine issues and have no current plans to do so. But if the government can decree private behavior on this, what other limits might the Arkansas legislature be tempted to place on speech? Would they demand silence on Planned Parenthood? On whether the Razorbacks should play Arkansas State?

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Leveritt writes:

Times are hard in the publishing industry, and we really needed the business. But at what price? It had never occurred to us to boycott anyone, but the idea that the state would force a publishing company to take a political position in return for business was offensive.

We then learned the law offered to let us continue to do business without signing the pledge, so long as we accepted a 20 percent cut in our ad rates. I said, “Well, to hell with them.” We were not going to pay a 20 percent tax for the right to hold beliefs independent of the Arkansas Legislature, at least not without a fight.

So, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, we sued the state to have this law overturned on free speech grounds.

A hearing on our request for an injunction against the law is set Friday in Little Rock federal court. The Constitution is on our side, if you believe in a robust 1st Amendment. Writes Leveritt:

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… as journalists, citizens, and taxpayers, we dispute the right of the state to impose any ideological litmus test on a publisher or other business, when the only consideration in awarding a state contract should be merit.

We’ve heard through the grapevine that the law has created some absurd confrontations for the state. For example, many state colleges and universities bring in touring musicians for concerts. Imagine demanding that a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame musician sign what amounts to a loyalty oath to the state of Israel before he can be paid. An architect from Fort Smith, Arkansas, who was bidding on a state job said it well when he wrote his local newspaper that he has “no political axe to grind with either Israel or the Palestinians, but this is a rather remarkable thing to require of a citizen to get a job.”

What he said.