During a week-long trip to Israel that kicks off Saturday, Governor Ron DeSantis will likely sign a bill prohibiting anti-Semitic speech in public schools. The measure passed both chambers unanimously, receiving a standing ovation in the House. But one anti-censorship group is asking the governor to use his veto pen.
Republican Representative Randy Fine was the House’s principle backer of the bill, which puts in place a legal definition of anti-Semitism and makes it consistent with the way Florida’s school system treats racial discrimination.
“Why now? The problem we face today is that anti-Semitism has become the socially acceptable form of discrimination,” Fine said, closing on the bill before the House gave it a green light in April.
Fine went on to cite a tweet from U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar in reference to pro-Isreal lobby The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
“Four-hundred years ago, Shakespeare referred to a Jew as a ‘shylock’ in a Shakespearian address,” Fine said. “Today, we hear ‘It’s all about the Benjamins.’”
Omar ultimately faced backlash for the comment, but later publicly apologized and explained that it was not meant to be anti-Semitic, but rather took issue with lobbyists’ “problematic role” in D.C. politics.
It was widely reported in the weeks leading up to the Governor’s Isreal trip that DeSantis is expected to sign the bill while overseas. But Fine, who along with five other state lawmskers will be in attendance, said in April it’s not about Israeli-U.S. relations.
“I want to be clear about something. This bill is not about Israel, but certainly our relationship with Israel is strengthened by it. No, this bill is about children like Rep. (Tina) Polsky’s children – to tell her and all of our constituents that are Jewish and their children, that when their children go off to college, they will never have an eviction notice put on the door of their dorms,” Fine said. “So that no Jewish student has to live through an on-campus ‘Israeli apartheid week,’ which just got funded at the university that I was so proud to attend.”
There, Fine cited his alma mater, Harvard University.
Fielding questions from his peers during a Senate committee, the chamber’s sponsor Republican Joe Gruters explained how anti-Semitism will be defined for public schools.
“This bill adds discrimination based on religion to the forms of discrimination which are prohibited in the public school system,” Gruters told the committee. “This bill standardizes the definition of anti-Semitism to the State Department definition.”
But Christopher Finan, who directs the National Coalition Against Censorship, sees the measure as being at odds with the First Amendment.
“We have a broad concern about any legislation that could have the effect of repressing, suppressing somebody’s right to have an opinion on any subject,” Finan said Friday.
Finan says his organization shares in the belief that more must be done to fight anti-Semitism, but is concerned that the bill – should it become law – would threaten students’ free speech right to be critical of the Israeli government or support Palestinian rights.
“HB 741 got our attention immediately, because it clearly steps over the line between protecting against discrimination – which of course we support – and infringing on the right to express an opinion that might be considered hostile to Israel, or Israeli policy, and therefore could be banned or punished as an anti-Semitic comment or writing,” Finan said.
Finan says the piece of the bill putting a definition of anti-Semitism in place isn’t what caught his attention.
“The definition of anti-Semitism in the bill – at least (that) part of it is certainly unobjectionable, and widely recognized and accepted as a definition. It’s where they add the language about comments about Israel that we encounter the problem,” Finan said. “Because, even though the sponsors of the bill insist that it doesn’t conflict with the first amendment, I think there is no question that this is an unconstitutional infringement.”
For that reason, Finan expects the law, should it be signed by DeSantis, to end up being challenged in court. He’s written a letter to the Governor on behalf of his organization, asking for a veto.
Some are questioning aspects of the Israel trip itself. Barbara Petersen, who heads the First Amendment Foundation, has expressed concern that holding a cabinet meeting in Israel may violate open government laws.
DeSantis is billing it as a "historic" business development trip that will last nearly an entire week, and include a meeting of the Florida Cabinet. The Governor is bringing a group of about 100 with him, including representatives from Florida businesses, lobbyists, academics and state agency heads.