The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a federal law that prohibits the “material support” of foreign terrorist organizations, rejecting claims from humanitarian aid groups that the law violated their First Amendment rights of free speech and association.
The humanitarian groups wanted to provide assistance, including dispute resolution training, the negotiation of peace agreements, political advocacy on behalf of minority groups and filing petitions with international governing bodies like the United Nations, to organizations the U.S. government has designated as terrorist groups. A federal law, however, criminalizes providing material support or resources – broadly defined to include both monetary and non-monetary support – to so-called foreign terrorist organizations.
In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the aid groups told the Supreme Court that the law was unconstitutional in their case, because they would only support the non-terrorist activities conducted by the groups in question.
Many justices disagreed, resulting in a 6-3 opinion. “Such support frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. “It also importantly helps lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups – legitimacy that makes it easier for those groups to persist, to recruit members, and to raise funds – all of which facilitate more terrorist attacks.”
The justices also rejected suggestions that foreign terrorist groups maintained legitimate financial firewalls between funds raised for peaceful activities and funds raised for terrorist activities.
Chief Justice Roberts stressed that even with the material support statute, people are still free to speak and write freely about the terrorist groups. He added that the statute also does not penalize “mere association” with a foreign terrorist organization.
Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, wrote a 23-page dissent, which stated that they did not believe the Constitution permitted the government to prosecute people for engaging in activity furthering the lawful political objectives of the terrorist groups.
Justice Breyer added that the government had not proven that criminal prosecution for assisting peaceful activities was necessary, or that funding peaceful objectives was tantamount to funding terrorist objectives.
“It is far from obvious that these advocacy activities can themselves be redirected, or will free other resources that can be directed, towards terrorist ends,” Breyer wrote.
Solicitor General and Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan represented the government during the oral arguments before the court last February.