U.S. Supreme Court Hears Southern California Professor's Challenge of Broad Anti-Terror Law

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February 26, 2010
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The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on February 23 in the case of USC professor of social work Ralph Fertig, who is President of the Humanitarian Law Project, a Los Angeles-based human rights organization that promotes peaceful conflict resolution through the use of international human rights laws. At issue is a provision of the Patriot Act which criminalizes providing expert advice, even advice on nonviolent conflict resolution, to an organization that the State Department has designated a terrorist organization. Fertig and the Humanitarian Law Project feared that their advocacy on behalf of the Kurdsish minority in Turkey could be interpreted as a violation of the law because some of the individuals with whom the group might be members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which the State Department considers a terrorist organization. 

The clash in this case between the anti-terrorism law and free speech rights echoes prior conflicts. In 1919, California and other states passed "criminal syndicalism" laws which created the felony of promoting "any doctine or precept advocating. . .unlawful acts or force and violence. . .as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change." The law became a tool to squelch the free speech rights of union organizers, strikers, and political dissidents. In 1923, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Upton Sinclair was arrested in San Pedro for reading the U.S. Constitution at a rally in support of striking dockworkers.

During the Cold War, President Harry Truman authorized the Attorney General to create a list of "totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive groups." The government considered membership or "sypmathetic association" in any of the 123 organizations on the list to be evidence of disloyalty.

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