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US Supreme Court Considers 'Material Support' Law

Jim Malone

Sometime during the next few months, the Supreme Court of the United
States will rule on a legal challenge to an anti-terrorism law that
critics say limits free speech.  The law in question bars material
support to terrorist groups.  But many U.S. based international aid
groups argue that the statute is too broad and should be narrowed.  

case was recently argued before the Supreme Court and stems from a
humanitarian law group in California that wanted to support lawful
activity by the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey and the Sri Lankan
group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Both groups are
among dozens of organizations on the U.S. State Department's list of
foreign terrorist organizations, and therefore subject to the material
support law that bans aid, training, services and expert advice to
those groups.

But critics of the material support statute argue
that it amounts to placing limits on free speech by preventing aid
groups from advising designated terrorist groups on issues such as
peace and conflict resolution.

Georgetown University law professor David Cole presented the oral argument challenging the law before the high court.

government cannot, consistent with the Constitution, make it a crime to
engage in lawful discussion of peaceable activities," said David Cole.

was part of a panel discussion at Georgetown University Law School and
said many aid groups also find the material support law overly broad
and confusing.

"So you are permitted to join one of these
organizations," he said. "You are permitted, the government says, to go
meet and discuss matters with the organization.  But if you engage in
any coordinated advocacy, you are a criminal and can face 15 years in

U.S. groups committed to peace and conflict resolution say the material support law inhibits their efforts around the globe.

Seul is with the Peace Appeal Foundation, a peace activist group
launched in the late-1990s by several Nobel Peace Prize winners.

believe that democracy is about talk, and the idea that talk can work,"
said Jeff Seul. "We really don't approve of the violence that is used
by parties on either side of the conflict.  And this case matters to us
because we have feared prosecution from our activities."

The Obama administration is urging the Supreme Court to keep the material support law intact.

General Elena Kagan told the nine justices on the high court this week
that the law remains a vital weapon in the continuing struggle against
international terrorism.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments
in the case the same week that Afghan national Najibullah Zazi pleaded
guilty to plotting a bomb attack on the New York City subway system.

Attorney General Eric Holder said the Zazi case proves the need for prosecutors to use all of the tools at their disposal.

are at war against a very dangerous, intelligent and adaptable enemy
and we must use every weapon available to us in order to win that war,"
said Eric Holder.

Anthony Barkow is a former federal prosecutor who is now with the New York University School of Law.

told the Georgetown panel that there are enough legal safeguards in
place to prevent aid groups from being wrongly prosecuted.  He said the
material support law should be preserved as an important legal weapon
in the war on terror.

"Those cases could be policed through
other mechanisms and therefore avoid the court issuing an opinion that
could strike down or significantly limit this really essential tool in
the arsenal of national security prosecutions," said Anthony Barkow.

oral arguments, several of the Supreme Court justices aggressively
questioned lawyers for both sides in the case.  Justice Anthony
Kennedy, who often casts the deciding vote on the sharply divided
court, said it was a difficult case for him.  Kennedy is a frequent
defender of the free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment
of the U.S. Constitution.

The high court is expected to issue a ruling in the case sometime before the end of June.   

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