Supreme Court criminalizes speech in ruling on terrorism support law

The US Supreme Court on June 21 ruled 6-3 in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project that the section of the PATRIOT Act criminalizing the provision of “material support” for groups designated “terrorist organizations” does not violate the First Amendment. The Court held that the law’s prohibitions on “expert advice,” “training,” “service,” and “personnel” are not vague, and did not violate speech or association rights as applied to plaintiffs’ intended activities.

The case arose after the Los Angeles-based Humanitarian Law Project sought to provide assistance and education on human rights advocacy and peaceful conflict resolution to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, both designated terrorist organizations. Lower court rulings had found the statute unconstitutionally vague.

The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, whose attorneys argued the case, notes that the HLP “sought to engage in speech advocating only nonviolent, lawful ends.” But the government argued that any such speech—including even filing an amicus brief in the US Supreme Court—is a crime if done in support of a designated terrorist group.

Attorneys say that under the ruling, many groups and individuals providing peaceful advocacy could be prosecuted—including Jimmy Carter for training all parties in fair election practices in Lebanon. President Carter submitted an amicus brief in the case.

Said CCR attorney Shayana Kadidal: “The Court’s decision confirms the extraordinary scope of the material support statute’s criminalization of speech. But it also notes that the scope of the prohibitions may not be clear in every application, and that remains the case for the many difficult questions raised at argument but dodged by today’s opinion, including whether publishing an op-ed or submitting an amicus brief in court arguing that a group does not belong on the list is a criminal act. The onus is now on Congress and the Obama administration to ensure that humanitarian groups may engage in human rights advocacy, training in non-violent conflict resolution, and humanitarian assistance in crisis zones without fearing criminal prosecution.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, affirming in part, reversing in part, and remanding the case back to the lower court for review; Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. In his dissent, Justice Breyer proposed a standard that would criminalize speech or association on behalf of designated terrorist organizations “only when the defendant knows or intends that those activities will assist the organization’s unlawful terrorist actions.” Opined the New York Times in an editorial critical of the ruling: “Because he was unable to persuade a majority on the court, Congress needs to enact this standard into law.” (CCR, Jurist, NYT, June 21)

See our last post on the domestic police state.