U.S. Supreme Bans Advising Terror Groups on Peaceful Conflict Resolution

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June 22, 2010
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In its first ruling since 9/11 in a national security case dealing with restrictions on free speech, the United States Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the government can criminally prosecute anyone who advises a group that the State Department has designated a terrorist organization, even if the advice deals with peaceful conflict resolution.

Writing for the court's majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the law does not violate the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech. He justified the ban on advising terror groups because such action “frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends,” and “helps lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups.”

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote that the court's majority was incorrect in failing "to insist upon specific evidence, rather than general assertion" that national securitiy trumped the speech in question. Bryer added that “this speech and association for political purposes is the kind of activity to which the First Amendment ordinarily offers its strongest protection.”

The dissenting Justices proposed a narrower interpretation of the law: individuals should not be prosecuted unless they intentionally provided advice or service that they had reason to believe would further violence.

One of the plaintiffs, USC professor of social work Ralph Fertig, 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. Fertig opposes violence and said his 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 Humanitarian Law Project worked might be members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (known as the PKK), which the State Department considers a terrorist organization. 

Commenting on the decision, Fertig stated, "This is a very dark day … but we will not let this inhibit our commitment to the Kurdish people. We will continue to advocate for the rights of the Kurds who are being oppressed. We do so with great fear that some of the people we are working with might be members of the PKK."

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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.

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