It has been said before that — and forgive us for channeling F. Scott Fitzgerald — politicians are different from you and me. Nowhere is the simple maxim of the Lost Generation’s preeminent writer more evident than in U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s performance during Friday’s town-hall-style forum at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield. Click here to see the full forum on video.
The congressman is a smooth-talking operator fluent in a variety of issues, most notably tax policy — an expertise borne no doubt from his 24 years on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. But despite his extensive knowledge of tariffs and revenue raising, Neal showed a troubling unfamiliarity with free speech issues in fielding questions from audience members about his sponsorship of a bill that raises obvious First Amendment questions.
Neal co-sponsored a highly controversial bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which opposes a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution urging countries to pressure companies to divest from Israel. The controversy lies mostly in the second part of the bill, which prohibits Americans engaged in interstate or foreign commerce from supporting an international boycott of Israel. Violations are punishable by a fine of up to a $1 million and 20 years in prison.
On its face, the prohibition against participating in boycotts sounds like a glaring departure from the American tradition of free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union has attacked the bill as “antithetical to free speech protections enshrined in the First Amendment” and urged the Senate to reject it.
On the other hand, some reputable legal scholars have argued that “federal law has for decades generally banned participation in boycotts of friendly nations” and that such bans only place prohibitions on commercial activity, not on actual speech.
Be that as it may, Cheryl Hogan of Charlemont pleaded with Neal to reconsider his support of the legislation, noting to much applause that she sees “that law not only as really stepping on our constitutional rights to free speech, but also attacking the one powerful nonviolent resistance movement that there is to try to change what we see happening in the Middle East.”
Neal’s response was revealing. He said he would ask Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) for “clarification” in order “to eliminate the idea that there might be a problem with free speech.” Neal added that he had read the Congressional Research Service’s report on the legislation and “and I came to the conclusion that there is no threat to free speech” because “this is about commercial activity.”
After that brief defense of his sponsorship of the bill, Neal launched into an infomercial about his human rights record, noting that he had led the way in divesting Springfield’s stock portfolio from South African interests when he was a mayor concerned about apartheid in the 1980s — as if that had any bearing on whether the Israel Anti-Boycott Act runs afoul of the First Amendment.
Then he extolled Israel’s virtues, lauding that nation for its democracy and free press and quickly adding that he has long advocated for a two-state solution that allows Israel and a Palestinian state to coexist.
None of Neal’s blatherings about his foreign policy record have anything to do with whether the boycott act would pass a First Amendment test. And his deferral for clarification to Cardin, who sponsored the bill and obviously likes it, has a hollow ring.
Opponents of the bill can take some comfort. The other Massachusetts House member who co-sponsored it, Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, has vowed to review the legislation in the wake of the ACLU’s objections and declared that he “takes the concerns raised with this particular bill extremely seriously.” In New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand withdrew her support this summer after hearing from constituents and constitutional scholars who “interpreted [it] as stifling or chilling free speech.”
So Neal constituents who are concerned about the legislation should keep up the pressure on their congressman. After all, it looks like the very reason he came to Pittsfield for a town hall forum in the first place was because of persistent public criticism that he avoided such settings.
The next time Neal answers questions from the public on this topic he will no doubt try to change the subject to his many accomplishments. After all, that’s what politicians often do in the face of criticism. Next time, perhaps it won’t be so easy.