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Texas Speech Pathologist Celebrates Temporary Free-Speech Win, Hopes It Inspires

A former school contractor spoke Friday about a Texas law that prohibits state government agencies from doing business with contractors who boycott Israel. A federal judge temporarily blocked the law Thursday.

Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune
Bahia Amawi speaks to media at the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) office on April 26, 2019. CAIR won a victory in a First Amendment lawsuit on behalf of Amawi, who lost her job as a speech language pathologist after refusing to sign a “no boycott of Israel” clause. Standing next to her is her husband, Mohammad al Bedaiwi.

A Texas speech pathologist who sued the state after losing her school contract because she declined to sign an agreement promising not to boycott Israel said Friday she’s elated that a federal judge ruled in her favor. Bahia Amawi added that she hopes others are inspired to stand up for their beliefs.

Her remarks at an Austin press conference came the day after U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman temporarily blocked a Texas law that prohibits state government agencies from doing business with contractors that are boycotting Israel.

"I know I was on the right side of this fight," Amawi said at the press conference at a local office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which filed the lawsuit on her behalf. "I didn't think, ‘I'm going to run away from this fight.' I really wanted to pursue it. Not just for me, but for the kids that I service, my own children and everybody in Texas."

Amawi, who worked as an independently contracted speech pathologist at Pflugerville ISD, lost her job in September after refusing to sign an addendum to her contract that included the Israel boycott language. In December, she filed a lawsuit with the council, which is known as CAIR, against Attorney General Ken Paxton and Pflugerville ISD.

Maira Sheikh, the CAIR-Austin executive director, said Amawi was the best person to take up this cause.

"Her work is incredibly important to the community and it's the farthest thing from any of these issues related to international law or this conflict, but she’s also a person of Palestinian origin," Sheikh said.

In issuing the injunction, Pitman wrote the law goes against the First Amendment because it threatens to suppress unpopular ideas and "manipulate the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion." The injunction order will stand while litigation proceeds in the case.

The law prohibits certain state agencies from contracting with and investing certain public funds in companies that boycott Israel. When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed it in 2017, he called Israel “an important ally,” saying “anti-Israel policies are anti-Texan policies.”

However, Amawi said the law is meant to silence Texans and punish them for expressing their political views. In the lawsuit, Amawi said she has "seen and experienced the brutality of the Israeli government against Palestinians."

The Texas Attorney General's office released a statement Friday on Pitman's ruling and blockage of the law.

"We’re disappointed with the ruling essentially requiring government to do business with discriminatory companies," said Marc Rylander, a spokesman for Attorney General Ken Paxton. "We look forward to defending this law on appeal."

Amawi said she hopes the recent ruling in her favor will encourage people in other states with similar anti-boycott laws to take action. Texas is one of 25 states that have passed similar anti-boycott laws regarding Israel.

Due to the nature of her work with schools, Amawi said she has not been able to work as a speech pathologist since September because of the required addendum. However, Amawi said she hopes to return to work next school year and is looking forward to working with kids again.

“It’s going to be a huge relief to be able to go back to service these kids that otherwise the service is not available for them and their needs are not fully met,” Amawi said. “And also, going back to making a difference in people’s lives, it’s a huge relief to do that.”

This piece was originally published in The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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