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Senate debates resolution to boycott, divest SA funds from Israel-aligned companies

Measure to adopt BDS guidelines for SA spending faces legal questions

By Maria Morkas and Sarah Knowlton     3/26/24 11:39pm

A student resolution calling on the Rice Student Association to participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement was presented at the Senate meeting March 25. The resolution is titled “Student Association Boycott and Divestment from Corporations Complicit in the Ongoing Genocide in Gaza.”

Under S.RES 02, an ethical spending advisory board would monitor organizations using money from the Blanket Tax and Initiative Fund to ensure no SA-disbursed funds were spent at companies on the BDS list. The five voting members of the ESAB would include three senate members, the SA external vice president and a member of the Blanket Tax Committee.

The Student Association oversees the disbursement of some $400,000 collected through Rice’s student activity fee, the Blanket Tax. Blanket Tax organizations — including Rice Program Council, University Court and student media organizations — receive yearly budgets, while other student groups can request one-time funds for events through the Initiative Fund.

At the time of publication, the resolution calls for prohibitions on spending Blanket Tax money at companies that the BDS website says “profit from the genocide of the Palestinian people,” such as Hewlett-Packard, Papa John’s and Domino’s.

“BDS is a nonviolent movement led by Palestinians with a decades-long history involving activists across the world,” the Lovett College senator and co-sponsor of the resolution said in a speech at Senate March 25. “The boycott targets listed in this resolution are based in the longstanding political work of the BDS movement.”

Potential for legal uncertainties

The resolution’s sponsors, the senators from Lovett and Brown College, said they were inspired by divestment resolutions at universities across the country, including the University of California, Davis, the University of Houston and Columbia University.

A similar ballot referendum was revoked last week by the administration at Vanderbilt University after concerns about legal complications under Tennessee law, which prohibits state contracts with entities that engage in boycotts of Israel.

Texas has a comparable law that may complicate the resolution’s passage.

“Texas law prohibits state agencies and political subdivisions from contracting with businesses that boycott energy companies, discriminate against firearm entities or associations or boycott Israel,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in a legal advisory in October 2023.

Rice’s general counsel Omar Syed said that S.RES 02 may face legal uncertainties if it passes.

“If this resolution moves forward, the legal terrain will become very uncertain, especially because there are alternative approaches that can be used to express the humanitarian sentiments in this resolution while upholding the Rice community’s commitment to education, conversation, dialogue, nondiscrimination and inclusiveness,” Syed wrote in a statement to the Thresher. 

The sponsors of S.RES 02 stated that they do not foresee any legal trouble if the resolution is passed.

“We spoke with legal representatives regarding concerns raised by a variety of actors in advance of proposing the resolution,” they wrote in an email to the Thresher. “Initial perception in casual dialogue indicated that any legal issues raised held little to no weight and are likely fearmongering tactics to discredit the resolution. We are also in the process of scheduling meetings with a lawyer specializing in these issues.”

The sponsors added they would confirm any legal implications of their resolution before the next Senate meeting.

“In our initial discussions with legal representatives passing this resolution would not impact any federal or state contracts, funding or other services and any mischaracterization is a clear attempt by an opposition to place fear into our representatives in regards to voting,” they wrote. “We will follow up and double check this information, confirming that this is not a risk, and present all legal conclusions to the Senate next Monday.”

Ethical spending policy

The ethical spending advisory board would be responsible for developing and communicating policy regarding divestment and ethical spending, according to the authors of the resolution. The ESAB would also report policy changes to the Senate, which could be overturned or modified with a majority vote.

“S.RES 02 establishes a list of corporations identified on the BDS list as complicit in violation of international law. Therefore, money from the Blanket Tax should not be spent at these corporations,” the Lovett senator said. “Blanket tax organizations impacted by the implementation of the ethical spending policy should receive guidance on a reasonable buffer period.”     

Entities with existing contracts with the companies listed are not required to sever signed contracts, but will not be permitted to renew them.” 

The resolution also asks Rice to end university partnerships with companies like Lockheed Martin, Chevron and Raytheon and to more clearly disclose Rice Management Company investments. It further calls upon the university to remove the vice president of Elbit Systems, an Israeli military technology company, from Rice’s data standards development board and security advisory board.

After introducing the resolution, the co-authors answered questions from students. Baker College junior Warren Weissbluth asked the authors of the resolution how Chabad and Hillel, “two organizations that intrinsically have connections to Israel,” could obtain Blanket Tax money.

“Chabad and Hillel are not barred from accessing funds,” the Lovett senator said in response. “This [resolution] is not a boycott of all of Israel at all. These are just the BDS target listed companies.”

Simon Yellen, a Duncan College junior, then asked about the list of companies mentioned in S.RES 02.

In a January article on its website, BDS divided companies into four groups: consumer boycott targets, divestment and exclusion targets, pressure targets and organic boycott targets.

BDS calls for a “complete boycott” of consumer boycott target companies such as HP and Chevron. BDS says governments and other institutions should not do business with companies on the divestment and exclusion targets list. Pressure targets such as Google, Amazon and Booking.com should be faced with “boycotts when reasonable alternatives exist,” BDS says, and the movement supports protests against organic boycott target companies.

“I noticed that Amazon and Google aren’t on there even though all the other members of the same category on the BDS list are on it,” Yellen said. “So doesn’t it seem a bit arbitrary to exclude certain companies because of how difficult that would be to boycott them?”

“There’s not really an alternative in our current day and age due to the monopoly that Google and Amazon have over their products versus other companies,” the Brown College senator responded. “We can strike all pressure targets and leave it up to the [ethical spending policy] board to determine which pressure targets are feasible to divest from with reasonable alternatives as established by BDS.”

S.RES 02 could come to a vote at the Monday, April 1 Senate. College senators recently sent out an anonymous form to garner thoughts, opinions and feedback on the proposed resolution. SA president Jae Kim said that there would be additional time allocated during next week’s Senate for speeches in favor and against the resolution as well as discussion of potential amendments.

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