U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden faced criticism during a Saturday town hall meeting for his support of a Senate bill that could block boycotts of Israel.
Several people who attended Wyden's Aug. 5 gathering at Wilson High School in Southwest Portland raised the issue of Senate Bill 720 several times. Wyden also discussed health care, the investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election and net neutrality during the town hall.
Senate Bill 720 was introduced in March by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. Wyden is one of the proposal's 48 co-sponsors.
The bill state's Congress' opposition to a March 2016 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution urging countries to pressure companies to not do business with the nation of Israel. It also encourages full implementation of a U.S.- Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement on July 17 openly opposing the bill, asking lawmakers to refrain from being co-sponsors, saying that it is a violation of the First Amendment.
The bill builds on an existing law from 1979: the Export Administration Act, which, according to the ACLU, prohibits "U.S. persons" (individuals and companies) from taking certain actions to comply with or support a boycott imposed by a foreign country against another country that is friendly to the United States. They say the government is prohibiting people from participating in certain boycotts they want to join.
However, Sen. Wyden has a different take on the proposal. "As we have read the bill, it means that anybody in this audience can boycott Israeli products or say they intend to boycott Israeli products. The bill doesn't prevent or punish anybody who makes those choices," he said. He said, as the son of a journalist, he has continually fought for First Amendment rights.
"The ACLU obviously is opposed to the bill, but they have not said that what I've described is inaccurate," Wyden added.
Recently, U.S. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-New York, withdrew her sponsorship of the bill reportedly after pressure at town hall meetings.
"I've read Sen. Gillibrand's statement," Wyden said. "She said she didn't support it in its current form. She didn't say she opposed it all together. She's had both sides kind of come down."
Some raised concern that there would be needless criminal penalties, such as fines and jail time, if the bill were signed into law.
"You're trying to amend a law that would send people to prison," one person argued.
Wyden contended, "Given the fact that this builds on existing law, nobody I have asked has been able to provide one example of a criminal penalty.
"We've had a law on the books for 40 years that prevents American commercial activity from participating in concerted boycotts led by foreign governments and I guess it could involve the U.N. but we could not find one instance of anybody put in jail," Wyden said.
He said that it wouldn't prevent anyone from exercising their First Amendment rights.
"You can post any criticism of Israel on your Facebook page, write an op-ed about your views for the newspaper, walk up and down the street with a megaphone, organize a big picnic in the back yard ... So that's our take, and we've been talking to scholars about that — that you can do those things.
"What you can't do, under the bill, and it builds on a 40-year law, is you can't work with a foreign government to promote the boycott … in that sense it builds on the 40-year law," Wyden said.
See where Senator Wyden plans to hold town halls the rest of the month: www.wyden.senate.gov/oregon/events