War on Terror

Supreme Court Upholds 'Material Support' Ban

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Today the Supreme Court upheld the federal ban on providing "material support" to groups identified as "foreign terrorist organizations" by the secretary of state. The activists challenging the statute feared prosecution for encouraging the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, both of which appear on the State Department's list, to pursue their goals through nonviolent means. As described by the district court, the plaintiffs wanted to "train members of [the] PKK on how to use humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve disputes," "engage in political advocacy on behalf of Kurds who live in Turkey," "teach PKK members how to petition various representative bodies such as the United Nations for relief," and "engage in political advocacy on behalf of Tamils who live in Sri Lanka." The Supreme Court's ruling (PDF) says the activists were correct to worry that such projects, though speech aimed at promoting lawful activities, would be considered "material support," which includes the broad categories of "training," "expert advice or assistance," "personnel," and "service." But in the view of six justices, this restriction on freedom of speech is justified as part of the fight against terrorism. While not ruling out the possibility that future applications of the law might violate the First Amendment, the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts says the Constitution allows Congress to criminalize the speech contemplated by the plaintiffs in this case, based on the premise that any assistance to terrorist groups, no matter its nature or aim, helps legitimize them and continue their violent activities.

In a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Stephen Breyer says the majority is too quick to accept this argument:

I cannot agree with the Court's conclusion that the Constitution permits the Government to prosecute the plaintiffs criminally for engaging in coordinated teaching and advocacy furthering the designated organizations' lawful political objectives. In my view, the Government has not met its burden of showing that an interpretation of the statute that would prohibit this speech- and association-related activity serves the Government's compelling interest in combating terrorism. And I would interpret the statute as normally placing activity of this kind outside its scope.

I discussed the case here and here.