Just before Thanksgiving, Alan Leveritt’s byline appeared in The Times, and we don’t mean the Arkansas Times, which the Little Rock publisher founded 47 years ago.
This was The New York Times.
Days later, Leveritt was on CNN with Christiane Amanpour, who showed clips from a new documentary movie, “Boycott,” in which Leveritt stars. It opened Nov. 14 at the Doc NYC festival in New York, featuring three plaintiffs who challenged state ultimatums to either sign a pledge agreeing not to boycott Israel or pay a price in state contracts.
The film’s director, Julia Bacha, joined Leveritt on the Amanpour program.
The film and Leveritt’s recent publicity push spotlight 33 state laws that have sprouted nationwide over the past few years. The Legislature approved the Arkansas law in 2017, but the idea originated in response to Palestinian calls starting in 2005 for “boycotts, divestment and sanctions” against Israel for its policies. BDS, as the effort came to be called, gained traction, spurring Israel and like-minded lobbyists to devise ways to quash it. In the United States, anti-BDS bills became a top weapon.
Leveritt told Arkansas Business last week that his media blitz intended to “draw attention to the boycott laws,” which had previously been almost invisible. “Most people are unaware, and I counted myself among that number previous to all this.”
In 2018, the Arkansas Times got a request from the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College, Leveritt wrote in his op-ed, headlined “We’re a Small Arkansas Newspaper. Why Is the State Making Us Sign a Pledge About Israel?” The college included a form for Leveritt to sign, agreeing “not to engage in a boycott” of Israel while the contract was in force. Leveritt declined.
“Our paper focuses on the virtues of Sims Bar-B-Que down on Broadway,” he wrote, “Why would we be required to sign a pledge regarding a country in the Middle East?”
The anti-boycott laws are promoted in American legislatures by Christians who view supporting the Jewish state as essential to creating the necessary conditions for the Second Coming of Christ.
State Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, sponsored the Arkansas law and is featured in “Boycott” saying that all of the state’s senators are Christian, and about half are evangelical. He also said that his evangelical beliefs drive almost every decision he makes as a lawmaker.
Leveritt and the other plaintiffs hold that boycotts are a form of protected political speech, a position supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. In early 2019, however, U.S. District Judge Brian Miller dismissed the Arkansas Times’ challenge to the 2017 law.
A three-judge panel of the federal 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in February, favoring Leveritt, but the pendulum swung again this fall when the full Circuit Court agreed to hear Arkansas’ appeal. Arguments were made and a decision could come any day.
Most Arkansas publications that do business with the state, including Arkansas Business and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, accepted the anti-boycott language as a simple business decision. Boycotting a faraway country is not something that would even cross most local publishers’ minds, Leveritt agrees.
But as a businessman and journalist, he hated having to sign on to a political position in order to do business with the state on a level playing field. He and the ACLU also hold that boycotts are protected political speech under the First Amendment. The opposing legal view, the one that Judge Miller cited in ruling against Leveritt, is that boycotts are actions, not speech.
For now, Leveritt is relying on the court of public opinion. “We’ve gotten a lot of coverage on CNN, The Intercept, etc., but I don’t know that it is having any effect,” he told Arkansas Business. “The documentary people are doing a screening in Washington for congressmen and policy wonks in February, and they have asked me to speak after the showing.”
But he predicts nothing will change in Arkansas “unless the courts do it.”
The Arkansas Times has been running some state advertising, accepting 20% less than full price as the penalty for refusing to sign the pledge. Leveritt put it this way: “It’s an abridgment of the First Amendment to take away 20% of our advertising because we won’t play ball.”
Leveritt said he’s taken care not to mix personal feelings with his magazine’s position, which he called strictly based on the First Amendment. “As a company we are neutral on anything in the Middle East. It is irrelevant to our political mission, which is to be the blue voice in a red state and advocate for good local policies. And good barbecue.”