U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Upholds Law Banning Even Peaceful Support for Terrorist Groups

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In the first major test of whether anti-terrorism laws conflict with free speech principles, the war on terrorism is victorious.

In a 6-3 ruling (PDF), the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a federal law banning material support for designated terrorist groups, even when the support is for legal activities, the Associated Press and the New York Times report.

The law had been challenged by aid groups who taught Kurds in southeastern Turkey how to bring human rights complaints to the United Nations and helped them in peace negotiations. The plaintiffs had claimed the material support ban was too vague, in violation of the Fifth Amendment, and infringed their rights to free speech and association, in violation of the First Amendment.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said support for even benign purposes “frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends. It also importantly helps lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups—legitimacy that makes it easier for those groups to persist, to recruit members, and to raise funds—all of which facilitate more terrorist attacks.”

Liberal Justice John Paul Stevens and moderate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined the conservative justices in the majority.

The majority opinion cautioned that more difficult cases involving the First Amendment and terrorism may arise in the future, involving either the material support statute or other laws. “In particular, we in no way suggest that a regulation of independent speech would pass constitutional muster, even if the government were to show that such speech benefits foreign terrorist organizations,” Roberts said. “We also do not suggest that Congress could extend the same prohibition on material support at issue here to domestic organizations.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer read his dissent aloud. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsbug and Sonia Sotomayor. “I believe application of the statute as the government interprets it would gravely and without adequate justification injure interests of the kind the First Amendment protects,” Breyer wrote in the dissent.

The case is Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.

Prior coverage:

ABA Journal: “A Touch of Terror? Court looks at free speech vs. material support for terrorism”

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