U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has become a reliable voice of dissent during the Trump presidency. Yet he's also the sponsor of a bill that critics say silences left-wing protest.
Wyden is co-sponsoring a Senate bill that could make it more difficult to boycott companies that support the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories—in some cases imposing a penalty of up to $1 million and 20 years in prison.
The bill, known as the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, has sat before Congress since March, virtually unopposed until it was met with strong objections last month by the nation's leading civil rights advocacy group.
The American Civil Liberties Union sent letters to all U.S. senators in mid-July asking them to vote no on the Israel Anti-Boycott Act because of the "chilling effect" it could have on free speech. News website the Intercept wrote about the bill late last month.
The bill would outlaw only those boycotts led by foreign governments or international agencies (like the United Nations). No such boycott currently exists, but the ACLU says just the implied threat within the law—that someone could be prosecuted for supporting a boycott—could silence speech.
Supporters of the legislation say that no individual American would be subject to the law, because it's meant to police corporations. And they say even companies can boycott based on their owners' personal beliefs, as long as they don't coordinate with foreign governments on the boycott.
The bill places Oregon's Democrats in Congress in a tight spot: stuck between supporting Israel and backing the lefty protest groups, reliably pro-Palestine, that have given them a boost in the Trump era. So we asked them where they stood on the bill. Do they support acts of protest even when they may not agree with the protesters?
Sen. Ron Wyden still supports the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, and he says the ACLU has misinterpreted the effect the bill would have on Americans and their ability to protest Israeli policies. "This bill continues to allow anyone to boycott Israeli products or to say they intend to boycott Israeli products," says Henry Stern, a spokesman for Wyden's office. "This bill wouldn't prevent anybody or punish anybody for making those choices. It does nothing to restrict Americans' speech. This bill doesn't create any new penalties either—it uses the same language as a 40-year-old law that prevents American commercial activity from participating in concerted boycotts led by foreign governments."
Rep. Peter DeFazio's office said in a written statement that he worries the bill's language could "impede on the First Amendment rights of those wishing to voice their concerns about the conflict between Israel and Palestine."
Rep. Earl Blumenauer says he has strong reservations about the bill. "I do not support the legislation," he says. "By failing to differentiate between Israel and the territories it has occupied since 1967, this bill undermines long-standing, bipartisan U.S. policy and puts a two-state solution further out of reach."
WON'T YET SAY
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici declined to take a stand for or against the bill, and a spokeswoman for her office said Bonamici would "continue to study it and consider input from constituents about it during her time in Oregon."
Sen. Jeff Merkley could not be reached for comment by press deadlines. A spokeswoman for his office said he was engaged with unexpected Senate business, and would reply later this week.
Rep. Kurt Schrader's office declined to return several calls and emails seeking comment on the bill.