U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Terrorism Law that Criminalizes Peaceful, Nonviolent Speech

Posted Jun 22, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version Bookmark and Share

Rejecting First Amendment Challenge, U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Terrorism Law that Criminalizes Peaceful, Nonviolent Speech

WASHINGTON, DC — In a 6-3 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a federal “material support” anti-terrorism law that, according to critics, threatens to undermine the First Amendment rights of organizations and individuals to engage in free speech and free association that is lawful, peaceful, and nonviolent. Although the Court agreed that the statute’s regulation of speech must be subject to a demanding level of scrutiny, the Court found that these sweeping restrictions were justified by the Government’s interests in combating terrorism. The decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project constitutes the court’s first ruling on the free speech and association rights of American citizens in the context of terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks. The Rutherford Institute and the Constitution Project had filed a friend of the court brief urging the Court to strike down the law as unconstitutionally overly broad.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project is available at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-1498.pdf.

The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief is available at http://www.rutherford.org.

“While cutting off support of terrorist activity is an important and legitimate part of the United States’ counter-terrorism strategy, it must not do so at the risk of undermining constitutional freedoms—especially speech that is intended to further only lawful, peaceful, and nonviolent activities,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Unfortunately, with this decision, the Supreme Court has carved out yet another loophole in the First Amendment and dangerously so.”

Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project involves federal laws prohibiting “material support” of terrorist groups and challenges the application of these laws to organizations and individuals who seek to provide human rights training to a designated group. The amicus brief filed by The Rutherford Institute and the Constitution Project argued that applying the material support statutes to punish pure speech that seeks to further lawful, non-violent activities is unconstitutionally overbroad. Attorneys also urged the Supreme Court to clarify the constitutional limits on Congress’s power to forbid American citizens from advocating on behalf of and directly participating in organizations the government deems a threat to the national security. Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, dissented, noting that the majority wrongly read the law “to forbid the teaching of any subject where national security concerns conflict with the First Amendment. The Constitution does not allow all such conflicts to be decided in the government’s favor.”