Supreme Court Upholds Anti-Terror Law, Rejecting Free Speech Claims

BY Quinn Bowman  June 21, 2010 at 12:27 PM EDT

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that a federal law making it a crime to provide “material support” to organizations designated as terrorist groups by the State Department is not unconstitutionally vague.

The case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, involved the case of a humanitarian group and other individuals that sought to help two groups designated as terrorist organizations – the Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The PKK seeks to establish an independent state for Kurds in Turkey and the LTTE seeks the same for Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Watch NewsHour coverage from when the case was argued:

The plaintiffs argued that the law banning support for such groups violated their freedoms of speech and association under the First Amendment because it didn’t force the government to prove that the material support was intended to help “unlawful ends” and that the law was unconstitutionally vague.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected those claims.

> “Most of the activities in which plaintiffs seek to engage readily fall within the scope of the terms ‘training’ and ‘expert advice or assistance.’ Plaintiffs want to ‘train members of [the] PKK on how to use humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve disputes,’ and ‘teach PKK members how to petition various representative bodies such as the United Nations for relief,’” Roberts wrote.

The New York Times recaps some of the background:

In 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright designated some 30 groups under the law, including Hamas, Hezbollah, the Khmer Rouge and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The United States says the Kurdish group, sometimes called the P.K.K., has engaged in widespread terrorist activities, including bombings and kidnappings, and “has waged a violent insurgency that has claimed over 22,000 lives.”

In the ruling, Roberts added that support for these groups, which have carried out bombings that killed innocent people, could not be separated between supporting the legal and illegal actions of the PKK and LTTE.

“Material support meant to ‘promot[e] peaceable, lawful conduct,’ can further terrorism by foreign groups in multiple ways. ‘Material support’ is a valuable resource by definition. Such support 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,” Roberts wrote.

His opinion was joined by Justices Stevens, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy and Alito.

In his dissent, Justice Steven Breyer argued that the anti-terror support law could be unconstitutional.

“I believe the Court has failed to examine the Government’s justifications with sufficient care. It has failed to insist upon specific evidence, rather than general assertion. It has failed to require tailoring of means to fit compelling ends. And ultimately it deprives the individuals before us of the protection that the First Amendment demands,” he wrote.

His dissent was joined by Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg.

Find a round-up from SCOTUSblog of the court’s other decisions and actions Monday here.

NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal will offer analysis of the decision on Monday’s broadcast. Be sure to tune in.