The Supreme Court heard arguments this morning in a case challenging the constitutionality of a law that international human-rights and humanitarian-aid charities say stifles their speech and advocacy work.
The charities take issue with the U.S. government making it a crime to provide “material support” to groups deemed “foreign terrorist organizations.” In the case, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the charities say the definition of material support — which includes services, training, expert advice, or personnel — is too broad and could criminalize their work to promote reconciliation among warring groups and provide aid in parts of the world controlled by terrorist organizations.
Under a law dating back to 1996 and revised under the Patriot Act, individuals face up to 15 years in prison for providing material support to terrorist groups, even if that work is legal and has peaceful goals.
The government argues that the law is a key tool in fighting terrorism. Many prosecutions under the law “prevented potential substantial harm to the nation,” Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, wrote in asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.
The justices agreed to take up the case after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the Humanitarian Law Project, a nonprofit group in California that mediates conflict and promotes human rights abroad. The group filed the lawsuit in 1998, seeking to provide training in conflict resolution to the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, both deemed terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.
Other rights and aid charities have filed “friend of the court” briefs in behalf of the Humanitarian Law Project, including the Carter Center, Human Rights Watch, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University, and Operation USA.
Muslim charities, too, have raised concerns, saying that the law dissuades American Muslims from supporting charities out of fear of coming under legal scrutiny.
During the hour-long arguments at the court this morning, justices conveyed some skepticism about the government’s position and suggested returning the case to lower courts, according to Lyle Denniston, a reporter for the SCOTUS blog. Justices raised questions about whether a distinction can be drawn among different types of support that individuals provide to terrorist organizations, Mr. Denniston wrote.