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US Government Wins Legal Battle Over Anti-Terror Law

  • David Dyar

The U.S. government won a major legal victory this week at the Supreme Court over an anti-terror law that has sparked a fierce debate about the issues of security and freedom of speech.

By a vote of six to three, the Supreme Court upheld a key anti-terror law that bars groups and individuals from providing material support to organizations designated as terrorist groups by the U.S. State Department.

The material support law was first enacted by Congress in 1996 and strengthened after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States as part of the Patriot Act.

The law bars citizens and groups from knowingly providing any service, training, expert advice or help to any designated terrorist groups.

The majority opinion upholding the law was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote even material support for terrorist groups intended for benign or peaceful purposes could help terrorists further their aims.

The Obama administration argued the support law is a vital weapon in the government's war against terror, and legal experts say the government's hand has been strengthened by the Supreme Court decision.

"The court's holding is that Congress can criminalize innocuous and otherwise protected activities when those activities are directed toward or coordinated with a designated foreign terrorist organization," said Viet Dinh, a former Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, who is now a legal scholar at Georgetown University Law School in Washington.

Free speech advocates, like Sharon Bradford Franklin were unhappy with the high court ruling. Franklin is with a bipartisan group called the Constitution Project, and she argues the anti-terror law is too restrictive and violates the freedom of speech provisions guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. "The problem with these laws is that they sweep way too broadly. And in the Constitution Project's view, as we have advocated, they really, with this over-broad sweep, infringe on First Amendment (to the Constitution) rights," she said.

Franklin says the court overreached by applying the law to individuals and groups that seek to provide peace-building and human-rights training to groups designated as terrorist organizations.

Former President Jimmy Carter said he was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision. Mr. Carter does a lot of work advocating human rights around the world and says broad application of the material support law inhibits groups like the Carter Center that work to improve human rights and conflict resolution.

Franklin predicts the Supreme Court decision will have a chilling effect on human-rights groups and other organizations that urge designated terrorist groups to find peaceful ways to resolve disputes.

"They wanted to train groups that had been designated terrorist organizations, and train them instead of fighting, instead of taking up arms, to instead pursue peaceful means, to teach them how to pursue their political goals through a claim before the United Nations, for example. And this is the type of work that should not only be protected by the First Amendment but also the kind of work that you would think our government might want to encourage NGO's (non-governmental organizations) to engage in as part of our counter-terrorism strategy," she said.

The case stemmed from challenges to the material support law by groups that had provided human-rights advocacy training to the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey, known as the PKK, and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. The State Department designated both groups as terrorist organizations in 1997.

Legal expert Viet Dinh says the Supreme Court decision is also significant because it gives the government and Congress a lot of leeway in enacting laws designed to protect Americans from terrorism. "In that sense, this is about a decision about government judicial deference, and the court says fairly clearly that we are deferring to congressional and executive determination with the respect to the importance of this tool in the war against terror," he said.

Anyone convicted under the material support law could be sentenced to prison for up to 15 years. The Justice Department says 150 defendants have been charged with violating the law since 2001, and that about half have been convicted.