LOS ANGELES - A federal judge in Los Angeles has struck down as too vague part of the Patriot Act that bars providing "expert advice and assistance" to foreign terrorist groups -- marking the first time a court has declared part of the law unconstitutional.
The written ruling by U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins, came in a 2003 challenge to the Patriot Act by five organizations and two individuals who sought to support Kurds in Turkey and Tamils in Sri Lanka.
"The ruling is significant in that it strikes the statute down as being in violation of the Fifth and First Amendments," David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who argued the case for the Humanitarian Law Project.
"It underscores what so many have said all along about the Patriot Act -- that Congress, in acting so hastily after 9-11, swept far too broadly and didn't pay significant attention to constitutional rights and liberties," he said.
A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman said in a written statement that attorneys there were reviewing the decision.
"The Patriot Act is an essential tool in the war on terror, and has played a key part -- and often the leading role -- in a number of successful operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists dedicated to destroying America and our way of life," Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said.
"The provision at issue in today's decision was a modest amendment to a preexisting anti-terrorism law that was designed to deal with real threats caused by support of terrorist groups," he said. "By targeting those who provide material support by providing 'expert advice or assistance,' the law made clear that Americans are threatened as much by the person who teaches a terrorist to build a bomb as by the one who pushes the button."
Collins, who was appointed to the federal bench by former President Bill Clinton, wrote in her 36-page ruling, which was made public on Monday, that the Patriot Act was too vague when it attempted to bar "expert advice or assistance" to groups designated as terrorist by the U.S. government.
"...The USA Patriot Act places no limitation on the type of expert advice and assistance which is prohibited and instead bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature," Collins said in the ruling.
But Collins rejected arguments by the plaintiffs that the law was overbroad and that it gave the Secretary of State "virtually unreviewable authority" to designate groups as terrorist.
Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd