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Speech pathologist sues district, state over pledge not to boycott Israel

Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist who lives in Round Rock, is suing Pflugerville ISD and Attorney General Ken Paxton over a pledge of allegiance to Israel (Photo: CBS Austin)

An elementary school speech pathologist is suing Pflugerville ISD and the State of Texas after being required to sign a pledge that she would not boycott Israel.

In order to renew her contract with the district, Bahia Amawi had to sign the document or forgo employment. After nine years with the district and 19 years working as a speech pathologist in Texas she no longer has a job.

The “pro-Israel” language in Amawi’s employment contract is part of a Texas state law passed in 2017. It says anyone who receives public funds must pledge that they do not and will not boycott Israel in a way that could cause economic harm to the country. Amawi says dictating how she spends her money clearly violates her rights.

“When I saw that, my first reaction was shock,” Amawi says of the addition to her contract. “Why is the government restricting me on who I can boycott? I felt like my rights were being taken away,” she says.

Amawi doesn't consider herself an activist but she says she purposely does not support Israeli business.

“If I know a product is made in Israel or supports Israel, I will chose not to purchase that and I will choose something else instead,” Amawi explains. She says boycotts and peaceful protests have long been a part of American history and she refuses to sign that right away.

“It’s up to me who I choose to boycott -- not up to them. This is what freedom of speech means and the right to protest and this is the American way,” Amawi says.

“I think this is a pretty clear constitutional violation,” says University of Texas at Austin law professor Larry Sager.

Sager isn't working on Amawi's case but he does think she has a strong one.

“Public employees and public contractors don't park their constitutional rights at the door,” he explains. Sager says government employees and contractors run into trouble when they openly criticize or undermine their employers, but he says Amawi's private purchases have nothing to do with her role at the school district.

“My strong suspicion is that she will be reinstated by virtue of a court decision eventually,” he says.

Amawi evaluated Arabic speaking students at Pflugerville ISD and provided speech therapy as needed. She was previously employed at Austin ISD.

Pflugerville ISD and the Texas Attorney General's Office did issue statements about the pending lawsuit against them.

Pflugerville ISD spokesperson Tamra Spence says:

Pflugerville ISD was recently named in a lawsuit by a former contractor regarding contract language. This language is required by the State of Texas for all school districts in Texas, along with other governmental entities.
Pflugerville ISD is committed to educating all students to be productive members of a diverse global community. Unfortunately, Pflugerville ISD and all Texas school districts are at the mercy of the state and the regulations printed into law, and in situations such as this, we are forced to spend time on state political issues and not on our core mission - educating students.
Although Pflugerville ISD is the focus of the lawsuit, this is a state issue that affects all Texas public school districts and should be addressed at the state level.

Marc Rylander, director of communications for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says:

Private citizens and companies have every right to express their views on any issue they wish by boycotting companies and citizens. They do not, however, have a right to use their business activity with the state to make that statement. The taxpayers of Texas do not want their money used to marginalize and attack a key ally and trading partner of Texas, and they have said so at the ballot box. They, too, have the right to express their views.
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