Is Nassau County ready to return to the days when entertainers were punished because of their political beliefs?
The blacklisting of actors, writers and directors during the Cold War is among the most shameful chapters of American history. People who refused to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether they had ever been members of the Communist Party lost their jobs and were unable to find work. Some even committed suicide.
Yet a group of Nassau County lawmakers appears to favor a revival of a blacklist. They are determined to prevent former Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters from performing at Nassau Coliseum next month because he has endorsed the goals of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. BDS seeks to punish Israel because of its policies toward Palestinians.
Legis. Howard J. Kopel, joined by the legislative Democratic minority leader Kevan Abrahams and County Attorney Carnell Foskey, are threatening legal action against Nassau Events Center, which schedules events at the Coliseum, for refusing to cancel the performances and for upholding Waters’ right to freely hold a political opinion.
In a letter to NEC, Foskey protested that “by enabling Mr. Waters to perform, NEC has given Mr. Waters a forum or platform to express his BDS ideology.”
Aside from his misrepresentation of Waters’ performances on Sept. 15 and 16, Foskey’s broad interpretation of Nassau’s law barring businesses doing business with the county if they support BDS implies that holding certain beliefs should bar a performer from appearing at a government-supported venue. His interpretation, indeed, recalls the infamous McCarthy era, when writers and performers, such as the now-legendary bass singer, actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, were blacklisted and denied platforms because of their political views.
Nassau County is not alone in passing an anti-BDS bill, legislation that mostly bars government from doing business with companies that participate in an economic boycott of Israel. At least 17 states, including New York, have introduced such legislation; in five it has failed to pass, and in several others the legislation is pending. In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order. The National Coalition Against Censorship has opposed the bills, arguing that boycotts are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment.
Whether we agree or disagree with the motives, tactics or goals of the BDS movement, it is important to recognize the right to participate and advocate for a boycott. From the Colonial boycott of British goods to protest taxation, to the boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in support of Rosa Parks, boycotts are highly effective at delivering political messages and have played an integral role in U.S. history. It is for that reason the Supreme Court has ruled boycotts are protected activities that “rest . . . on the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values.”
Blacklisting a performer for his political opinions, as the McCarthy witch hunts demonstrated, has far-ranging effects: where one performer may be taken off the stage, the speech of many is chilled. And that may, indeed, be the goal of politicians who want certain political ideas suppressed.
But, as Waters himself sang some 40 years ago, in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” “We don’t need no thought control.”
Jas Chana is the communications director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, a nonprofit organization dedicated to defending the First Amendment and free expression rights.