Boycott Follows Austinite Bahia Amawi’s Journey to Defend the First Amendment
The documentary highlighting the importance of free speech made its debut during SXSW
By Meher Qazilbash
Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist serving public schools in Austin, became a monumental figure in the community when she decided to sue the State of Texas to protect her First Amendment rights. The story of her fight against injustice is chronicled in the recently released documentary Boycott.
Boycott, a 2021 film directed by Julia Bacha, traces the impact of state legislation that penalizes individuals and companies who make the decision to boycott Israel. These laws punishing dissent exist in 33 states, including here in Texas, and have staggering impacts on the American right to freedom of expression. While covering these various complex issues and highlighting the rich history of boycotts and their impact in the U.S., the story remains digestible and thrilling.
The Texas premiere of Boycott took place on March 13 during SXSW at the Stateside Theater, symbolically just a few steps away from the Texas Capitol, where much of Amawi’s journey took place. The filmmakers and cast members took part in an extended Q&A after the screening, moderated by Austinite and influential Texas political organizer Jehmu Greene.
The documentary follows the stories of Amawi, as well as Alan Leveritt, the publisher of The Arkansas Times who sued the State of Arkansas for violating the freedom of the press, and Mikkel Jordahl, an attorney for incarcerated persons who sued the State of Arizona for this government overreach in his contract. Each of the protagonists were driven by the motive to defend free speech, even when matters of Israel and Palestine were not their primary concern. Their actions serve as a testament to the integrity of American citizens, as well as to their individual power in protecting constitutional rights.
Amawi’s story began when she suddenly found herself unemployed. The only Arabic-speaking speech pathologist in the Austin area, she was no longer able to serve the children who needed her because she refused to sign a contract that denied her the right to speak or act on behalf of Palestine and her family that resides in Occupied Territories. Someone whose profession is to help others communicate was suddenly silenced in numerous ways. Her natural instinct to correct what is wrong propelled her to take action against the state, and to do so with a notably composed and confident disposition.
“I’m blessed to live in a country where I have protected speech,” shares Amawi. “I was appalled that they were trying to take it from me… I feel I was attacked on both fronts, as an American and as a Palestinian-American.”
Amawi saw the implications that one bill’s attack on the First Amendment could have on future generations. Members of the Austin community encouraged her with support, even when they disagreed with her views on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
One can view this law as a template, and simply replace “Israel” with another political topic of their choosing. Regardless of your personal views, being able to make political decisions as an individual is an essential part of America, and everyone wins when that principle is defended.
“The motivating factors for me were protecting free speech and my kids,” says Amawi. “I don’t want them to inherit this and be villified because they’re Palestinian — that every time they speak up for Palestine they’re labeled. I don’t want that negative label for them or for anyone.”
Her efforts paid off and a federal judge temporarily blocked the law, noting its attack on the First Amendment. Her win proves that citizens do have power, perhaps more than they tend to recognize.
When there is so much injustice that plagues the world and many citizens feel helpless and defeated, each of these protagonists’ actions and lawsuits seems especially heroic. Amawi understands there is only so much we each can change in the world, but still advises citizens to see value in the attempt.
“I wasn’t so concerned about the result or how representatives reacted to me,” explains Amawi. “I knew if I just tried to do the best I could do to the extent I could do, that to me was success. I think if you sit there and do nothing, that overwhelms you with guilt and frustration and it builds up. A good way to relieve it is by doing something and saying something. Act on your feelings or emotions as much as possible.”
Boycott was produced by Just Vision, a nonprofit organization dedicated to filling a media gap in Israel-Palestine through storytelling. To learn more about the film and check out its upcoming screenings, visit their website.