Civil rights activist seeks to prove anti-terrorism law a violation of free speech
Ralph Fertig, a 79-year-old professor who has fought for civil rights most of his life, wants to be a public advocate for the oppressed Kurdish minority in Turkey.
He’s worried the US government, which calls the group a terrorist organization, will throw him in prison for 15 years as a collaborator.
So Fertig has challenged the law as the lead plaintiff in a case the Supreme Court will hear early next week.
Specifically, Fertig is challenging a 1996 provision in the Patriot Act that allows long prison terms for anyone for helps or advocates for terrorist groups in any way. According to government lawyers, the law not only prevents “training” or “assistance” to terrorists, but also the filing of a legal brief or writing an op-ed essay on behalf of a designated terrorist group.
Fertig says all he wants to do is teach Turkish Kurds the philosophies of non-violent protest he practiced as a civil rights activist in the ’60s.
“I am opposed to violence,” he said. “It seems crazy to me that I could go to jail for trying to persuade people to engage in nonviolence,” said Fertig, a retired judge and a professor of social work at USC.
The case is Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, a group that Fertig has worked with in the past. Together, they won an important court battle that concluded with parts of the anti-terrorism law declared unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit Court.
But the Obama administration appealed the case to the Supreme Court, arguing that these rulings undercut “a vital part of the nation’s effort to fight international terrorism.”
U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan argued the point further, accusing the Humanitarian Law Project of violating the same law.
“In fact, all of the [Humanitarian Law Project's] proposed activities fall squarely within the ordinary meaning” of the law’s ban on supporting a terrorist group,” Kagan said. “Congress has banned a broad range of material support [to terrorists], regardless of whether the support is ostensibly given to assist supposedly lawful activities.”
Fertig is no stranger to battles of civil rights.
“I had most of my ribs broken,” he said of his 1961 arrest in Selma, Ala. He was beaten by police for trying to integrate the interstate bus system as a “freedom rider.”
Asked by The Los Angeles Times what he would do if he lost the Supreme Court case Tuesday, Fertig said this:
“I would continue to speak for the rights of the Kurds,” he said. “And if I’m arrested, it would not be the first time.”