Internationally-Renowned Humanitarian Groups Support Challenge To Unconstitutional "Material Support" Law

November 23, 2009 2:48 pm

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ACLU Files Friend-Of-The-Court Brief In U.S. Supreme Court

November 23, 2009

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NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Carter Center, Human Rights Watch and several other human rights and humanitarian organizations in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of a law that makes it a crime to provide “material support or resources” to any organization that the Secretary of State has designated a “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO). The organizations that joined the brief are internationally recognized for their efforts to promote peace, further human rights and alleviate human suffering around the world. According to the brief, those efforts are imperiled by the vague language of the material support law, which arguably reaches even speech and advocacy whose only purpose is to deter future terrorist activity.

“The material support law is so vague and broad that peace, human rights and aid groups are left hopelessly guessing whether their constitutionally-protected speech could land them in jail,” said Melissa Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “Cutting off aid to terrorism is undoubtedly an important government interest, but criminalizing legitimate peace-building and humanitarian work – including advocacy to end terrorism and violence – does nothing to further that interest and actually makes it more difficult to achieve.”

Under the law, individuals face up to 15 years in prison for providing “material support” to FTOs even if they oppose the terrorist activities of the designated group and even if their work is intended to further entirely peaceful, lawful objectives. “Material support” is defined broadly to include, among other things, any “service,” “training,” “expert advice or assistance,” or “personnel.” The ACLU’s filing asserts that “each of these terms is vague, sweeping, and potentially proscribes a wide range of speech and advocacy that is protected by the First Amendment.”

The brief was joined by nine groups who emphatically oppose terrorism, but whose peace-making, conflict resolution, human rights advocacy and aid provision to needy civilians sometimes requires direct engagement with groups and individuals that resort to or support violence, including some that are, have been or might in the future be designated as FTOs. The vague material support law potentially criminalizes the groups’ efforts to convince armed actors to choose non-violent means to achieve their ends, to support peace processes or to explain to perpetrators of human rights abuses their obligations under international law and persuade them to cease their rights-violating practices. The vague material support law also has grave implications for the provision of humanitarian aid, disaster relief and development efforts in conflict zones where designated groups may operate or even control the area.

“The government should not be in the business of criminalizing speech that furthers humanitarian ends,” said Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU Legal Director. “No one should face the threat of prison for exercising their First Amendment rights in order to further peace, promote human rights and provide humanitarian aid around the world.”

The ACLU filed the brief on behalf of the Carter Center, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Grassroots International, Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group, the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University, Operation USA and the Peace Appeal Foundation.

In addition to Shapiro and Goodman, attorneys on the brief are Jameel Jaffer and Larry Schwartztol of the ACLU National Security Project.

The ACLU’s brief is available online at:

More about the case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, is at:

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