Supreme Court ruling makes ‘it a crime to work for peace and human rights’: CCR

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Monday, June 21, 2010 14:15 EDT
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Group: Former President Carter could be prosecuted for monitoring fair elections in Lebanon

The US Supreme Court endorsed Monday a broad reading of the law criminalizing “material support” to terrorism, a statute that critics argue targets legitimate free speech.

In a six to three vote, the highest US court sided with the government and found that an NGO could face prosecution for providing non-terror-related support, including rights training, to US-designated terror groups.

The case involved the Humanitarian Law Project, a human rights group, which the court ruled could face prosecution under the material support statute for providing human rights or conflict resolution training to groups including the Kurdish PKK or the Tamil Tigers.

“The material-support statute is constitutional as applied to the particular activities plaintiffs have told us they wish to pursue,” the court ruling said.

In a press release sent to RAW STORY, the Center for Constitutional Rights argues that the ruling “criminalizes” free speech, and that even former President Jimmy Carter could face potential prosecution.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to criminalize speech in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the first case to challenge the Patriot Act before the highest court in the land, and the first post-9/11 case to pit free speech guarantees against national security claims. Attorneys say that under the Court’s ruling, many groups and individuals providing peaceful advocacy could be prosecuted, including President Carter for training all parties in fair election practices in Lebanon. President Carter submitted an amicus brief in the case.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, affirming in part, reversing in part, and remanding the case back to the lower court for review; Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. The Court held that the statute’s prohibitions on “expert advice,” “training,” “service,” and “personnel” were not vague, and did not violate speech or associational rights as applied to plaintiffs’ intended activities. Plaintiffs sought to provide assistance and education on human rights advocacy and peacemaking to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, a designated terrorist organization. Multiple lower court rulings had found the statute unconstitutionally vague.

Created in 1996, the “material support” language was strengthened under the Patriot Act, which Congress passed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and reauthorized with some changes in 2004.

It has usually been used to prosecute individuals who have helped organize or finance terrorist attacks.

The law has become a popular tool for prosecutors, who have prosecuted some 150 people under the statute in the United States, obtaining convictions in around 60 cases, and sentences ranging up to life in prison.

The Associated Press adds,

In his dissent, Breyer recognized the importance of denying money and other resources to terror groups. “I do not dispute the importance of this interest,” he said. “But I do dispute whether the interest can justify the statute’s criminal prohibition.”

Breyer said the aid groups’ mission is entirely peaceful and consists only of political speech, including how to petition the U.N.

“Not even the ‘serious and deadly problem’ of international terrorism can require automatic forfeiture of First Amendment rights,” he said.

The CCR statement adds:

Said CCR Cooperating Attorney David Cole, “We are deeply disappointed. The Supreme Court has ruled that human rights advocates, providing training and assistance in the nonviolent resolution of disputes, can be prosecuted as terrorists. In the name of fighting terrorism, the Court has said that the First Amendment permits Congress to make human rights advocacy and peacemaking a crime. That is wrong.”

Originally brought in 1998, the case challenges the constitutionality of laws that make it a crime to provide “material support” to groups the administration has designated as “terrorist.” CCR’s clients sought to engage in speech advocating only nonviolent, lawful ends, but the government took the position that any such speech, including even filing an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court, would be a crime if done in support of a designated “terrorist group.”

Said CCR Senior 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.”

The Court rejected the government’s argument that the statute, when applied to plaintiffs’ proposed speech, regulated not speech but conduct, and therefore needed to meet only a low standard – “intermediate scrutiny” – to survive. Instead, the Court found that the statute did criminalize speech on the basis of its content, but then found that the government’s interest in delegitimizing groups on the designated “terrorist organization” list was sufficiently great to overcome the heightened level of scrutiny. This is one of a very few times that the Supreme Court has upheld a criminal prohibition of speech under strict scrutiny, and the first time it has permitted the government to make it a crime to advocate lawful, nonviolent activity.

The Constitution Project also blasted the court’s decision in a press release sent to RAW STORY:

Today, the Supreme Court, in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, upheld the extremely broad application of federal laws that prohibit material support for designated terrorist groups. The lawsuit challenged the application of the “material support” laws to organizations and individuals who seek to provide peacebuilding and human rights training to groups designated as terrorist organizations. Writing for a total of six justices, Chief Justice Roberts today rejected this challenge, finding that the application of the material support statutes to punish these groups’ pure speech that seeks to further lawful, non-violent ends does not run afoul of the Constitution. Although the Court agreed that the statute’s regulation of speech must be subject to a demanding level of scrutiny, the Court found that these sweeping restrictions were justified by the Government’s interests in combating terrorism.

“The Constitution Project is thoroughly dismayed by today’s Supreme Court’s decision, which will allow for the prosecution of individuals for constitutionally protected, peaceful, speech and association activities,” said Sharon Bradford Franklin, Constitution Project Senior Counsel. “As much as our government must have the tools needed to punish those who work to enable acts of terrorism, it is essential that these laws respect constitutional freedoms. We regret that the Court refused to rein in the overbroad sweep of the material support statutes to ensure that terrorist activities are prohibited but that free speech and association are still safeguarded by the First Amendment. Training groups to pursue peaceful resolution of their disputes should be encouraged, not made criminal.”

Last November, the Constitution Project, together with The Rutherford Institute, filed an amicus brief in the case, urging the Supreme Court to strike down the provisions of the material support laws that conflict with First Amendment protections for free speech and freedom of association. Also in November, the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee released Reforming the Material Support Laws: Constitutional Concerns Presented by Prohibitions on Material Support to “Terrorist Organizations,” which proposed eight reforms to remedy serious First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment concerns created by existing material support laws.

To view the Constitution Project’s amicus brief in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, go to: http://www.constitutionproject.org/manage/file/357.pdf.

A statement sent to RAW STORY by the ACLU adds,

The following can be attributed to former President Jimmy Carter, founder of the Carter Center:

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court has upheld a law that inhibits the work of human rights and conflict resolution groups. The ‘material support law’ – which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism – actually threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence. The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom.”

The following can be attributed to Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project:

“Today’s decision is disappointing and inconsistent with our First Amendment position. The government should not be in the business of criminalizing speech meant to promote peace and human rights.”

(with AFP reports)

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