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On June 21, 2010, a divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal statute that bans support to designated terrorist organizations, even when that support involves using international law to resolve disputes through nonviolent means. In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (HLP), the court ruled 6-3 that U.S. organizations and citizens teaching nonviolent methods of conflict resolution toward sanctioned terrorist groups could face criminal charges.

At issue is the federal law that sanctions anyone who provides “expert advice,” “training,” and “service,” to a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), as designated by the U.S. government. HLP and other groups sought to provide assistance for human rights advocacy and peacemaking to a designated terrorist organization, but fear facing criminal charges for providing those groups with “material support.” After multiple lower court rulings had found the statute unconstitutionally vague, the Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court’s rulings, holding that the statute is not vague and does not violate speech or associational rights as applied to HLP’s intended activities. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said terrorism is furthered by “providing foreign terrorist groups with material support in any form.”

All the activities involved in the case are communications and advocacy of political ideas and lawful means of achieving political ends. Even the subjects HLP wishes to teach — using international law to resolve disputes peacefully or petitioning the United Nations, for instance — concerns political speech.

David Cole, an attorney representing HLP and others in the case said, “We are deeply disappointed. The Supreme Court has ruled that human rights advocates, providing training and assistance in the nonviolent resolution of disputes, can be prosecuted as terrorists. In the name of fighting terrorism, the Court has said that the First Amendment permits Congress to make it a crime to work for peace and human rights. That is wrong.”

Stephen Vladeck, a professor of law at American University and nationally recognized legal expert on the role of the federal courts in the war on terrorism, said the ruling will adversely impact peace groups hoping to turn terrorist groups away from violence.  He said the Supreme Court’s opinion would “have a profound chilling effect on the efforts of peacebuilding organizations and other NGOs that seek to promote non-violent democracy-building measures vis-à-vis these groups through teaching and other advocacy training.”

Sharon Bradford Franklin, Senior Counsel at Constitution Project said in a press release that “as much as our government must have the tools needed to punish those who work to enable acts of terrorism, it is essential that these laws respect constitutional freedoms. We regret that the Court refused to rein in the overbroad sweep of the material support statutes to ensure that terrorist activities are prohibited but that free speech and association are still safeguarded by the First Amendment.  Training groups to pursue peaceful resolution of their disputes should be encouraged, not made criminal.”