Supreme Court Split on Terror Law
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court struggled Tuesday to decide whether a law barring support to terrorist organizations violates the First Amendment rights of humanitarian groups seeking to help them with peaceful solutions.
The justices appeared split as they heard the long-running case that pits free-speech values against national security concerns and has gained relevance since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Justice Anthony Kennedy voiced concern that the government could prohibit advice to a terrorist group on how to obtain tsunami aid or even file a legal brief. Yet Kennedy noted the government's view that any help for terrorists may advance violent goals. He said, "This is a very difficult case for me."
U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, defending the law that bans not only money but also training and advice to foreign terrorist groups, cited Lebanon-based terrorists: "Hezbollah builds bombs. Hezbollah also builds homes. What Congress decided was when you help Hezbollah build homes, you are also helping Hezbollah build bombs."
Representing the Los Angeles-based Humanitarian Law Project, among those challenging the law, David Cole said his clients want to assist the Kurdistan Workers' Party at the United Nations and "to inform the Kurds of their international human rights and remedies."
The U.S. State Department designated the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a separatist group in Turkey known as the PKK, a "foreign terrorist organization."
Tuesday's case tests the "material support" ban that makes it a crime to provide "service," ''training" or "expert advice and assistance" to designated organizations. A federal appeals court found those disputed terms of the material-support law, which traces to 1996 and was bolstered by the 2001 USA Patriot Act, unconstitutionally vague.
"Petitioning the United Nations . . . does not on its face seem to me to be something that reasonably you would think was going to aid them in their unlawful objectives," Justice Stephen Breyer told Kagan.
"Congress thought that various kinds of aid given to the legal and legitimate activities," she responded, "further . . . the illegal and illegitimate goals."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, suggesting she found the law too vague, said, "Under the definition of this statute, teaching these (terrorist group) members to play the harmonica would be unlawful."
Kagan responded that there "are not a whole lot of people . . . trying to teach al-Qaeda how to play harmonicas."
Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to support the government's position.
"The end that Congress seeks to proscribe is the existence of these terrorist organizations," he said.
Justice John Paul Stevens asked Cole whether his case would be different "if we were at war," and Stevens said, "Why aren't we now at war with regard to our opposition to these organizations?"
Cole said that context could matter if acts of treason were at issue.