M013 Supporting Freedom of Speech and the Right to Boycott

Proposed by

Diocese of Vermont

To the Bishops and Deputies of the Episcopal Church Assembled at the 80th General Convention

At the 2018 Convention of the Diocese of Vermont, the delegates adopted a resolution titled, “Supporting Freedom of Speech and the Right to Boycott.” Delegates at the 2021 convention adopted a resolution to forward that resolution to the 80th General Convention in the form of a memorial, with the hope that it might support resolutions submitted by deputies, bishops, or other dioceses on the same topic.  

The 2018 resolution reads as follows:

“Resolved, That the 185th Convention of the Diocese of Vermont urge the President of the United States and the Vermont congressional delegation to oppose legislation that would penalize companies and organizations for their participation in nonviolent boycotts on behalf of Palestinian human rights, as such legislation, at both federal and state levels, would be an infringement on First Amendment rights.”

The explanation that accompanied the resolution quoted an April 2, 2014 statement from Archbishop Desmond Tutu issued by Oryx Media regarding his support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, particularly with regard to the human rights abuses endured by the Palestinian people.  

The explanation continued:

Boycotts as nonviolent political actions are an American tradition, with roots extending to the pre-Revolutionary boycott of British tea. As far back as the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Supreme Court has consistently considered boycotts protected speech under the First Amendment. Some examples of effective boycotts include the 1965-66 grape boycott in the Central Valley that birthed the United Farm Workers, the South Africa boycott, which The Episcopal Church supported in 1985 (Res. 1985-D073), and, most recently, the boycott of North Carolina stemming from its anti-LGBT legislation. 

The current anti-boycott legislation (as of 2018) at the state and federal levels is opposed by, among others, the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. In November, 2017, twelve of The Episcopal Church's ecumenical partner churches and twenty-eight activist organizations released a public letter calling the anti-boycott legislation pending in Congress and in state legislatures “a blatant infringement on First Amendment rights,” and pledged to defend the right of churches and organizations to use economic measures in the specific case of Israel-Palestine. 

The Episcopal Church affirmed in Resolution 1991-D122 that legitimate criticisms of Israeli government policies and actions are not anti-Semitic. While the 79th General Convention (2018) did not directly address the anti-boycott legislation, it did adopt Resolution B016 [see text below] to join with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in how it sets investment policy. B016 directs the Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSSR) to develop criteria for Israel/Palestine based on a human rights investment screen and past actions of General Convention and Executive Council; to encourage an increase in positive investment in Palestine; and to encourage continued engagement in shareholder advocacy regarding human rights in Israel and the occupied territories.  

Any legislation that suppresses legitimate criticism of public policy, and that restricts freedom of expression and the ability to exercise public witness through boycotts or investment and selective purchasing practices violates the U.S. Constitution. While the Church and its members may not be of one mind about which measures are most effective, the Church must collectively affirm and defend the right of individuals, congregations and organizations to use economic measures in the specific case of Israel-Palestine relations.

Respectfully submitted,

The Episcopal Diocese of Vermont. Voted and affirmed at the November 2021 Vermont Convention