High Court Upholds Law Prohibiting Material Support To Terrorists


The United States Supreme Court has upheld a ban on providing “material support” to terrorist organizations, even if that support concerns peaceful, legal activities.

The court ruled 6 to 3 that the law, which bars people from providing training or advice to organizations that promote terrorism, does not violate their free speech. Their decision reverses a ruling laid down by a lower court that said parts of the law was unconstitutionally vague.

First adopted in 1996, and strengthened by the passage of the Patriot Act after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the law forbid knowingly providing any service, training, expert advice or other assistance to a foreign organization that has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist group. It carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Since the 2001 attacks, the United States government has charged approximately 150 defendants with the material support of terrorism, according to the Justice Department, and about half of those were convicted.

The law was challenged by aid groups that had assisted a Kurdish group in Turkey, known as the PKK, in peace negotiations and in bringing human rights complaints to the United Nations. In 1997, however, the PKK was designated a terrorist group, as was a similar group in Sri Lanka that would have benefitted from the advice of the humanitarian workers—who included a group called the Humanitarian Law Project and several individuals.

They argued that since they were performing nonviolent, lawful human rights duties, the restrictions placed on them by the law were in violation of their constitutional right to free speech.

The plaintiffs, however, “simply disagree with the considered judgment of Congress and the executive that providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization—even seemingly benign support—bolsters the terrorist activities of that organization,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for the majority.

Joining Roberts in upholding the law were the court’s conservatives—Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. –and its most liberal justice, John Paul Stevens. Dissenting were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer, who said that the court was relinquishing its duty to protect individual liberties, in the name of unjustifiable national security threats.

“In such cases, our decisions must reflect the Constitution’s grant of foreign affairs and defense powers to the president and to Congress but without denying our own special judicial obligation to protect the constitutional rights of individuals,” said Breyer. “That means that national security does not always win.”


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