Court Upholds Law Barring Support For Terrorists

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The Supreme Court has ruled that the federal law banning "material support of terrorist groups" is constitutional.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here in this country, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a ruling that upholds a federal law. The law bans material support, as it's called, of foreign terrorist organizations. This is considered a significant victory for the government, and we're going to talk about it with NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. She's on the phone from the Supreme Court. Hi, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the specific case at issue, here?

TOTENBERG: Well, this case has actually been going on for 12 years. A California professor and some human rights organizations wanted to train to the PKK, which seeks an independent state for Kurds in Turkey, and other organizations with similar goals. And they were - under the material support law enacted by Congress, they were subject to prosecution for that.

INSKEEP: Let's explain that, if we can. You're basically saying they were trying to do something they considered humanitarian work, not terrorism, but they were dealing with organizations that are also accused of terrorist activity.

TOTENBERG: Right. Let me finish here, for a second.

INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah.

TOTENBERG: The secretary of state can designate a group as a terrorist organization. And under the material support law, if you knowingly give them any assistance, services, anything of any sort, you can be subject to prosecution. And the government claimed that because these folks would have legitimized these groups - what they wanted to do was help them bring their claims to the United Nations and resolve their disputes peacefully. But that, the government said, would legitimize these organizations, and that therefore, this was aiding a terrorist group and they could be subject to prosecution. And the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and today, the government won by a vote of six to three.

INSKEEP: So the government - rather, the government is supported by the majority, the six justices in favor.

TOTENBERG: Right.

INSKEEP: But Justice Stephen Breyer was among three who said no. And, in fact, Breyer read his decision from the bench, if I'm not mistaken.

TOTENBERG: Right. First, Chief Justice Roberts spoke for the six-person majority and said that the court, essentially, here, has to defer to the expert advice of both Congress and the Executive Branch in matters of these - of foreign policy and national security, and that individuals are free to speak independently anytime they want, but they can't coordinate with a terrorist group.

Justice Breyer, speaking for himself, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor, said that what these groups wanted to do was to remember, he said, teach peaceful resolution of disputes. And there's no way to do that without coordinating with these groups. And he said the Constitution does not mean that national security always wins. Departures from norms have to be justified. And here, he said the government had not given any evidence that showed why these groups shouldn't be able to teach the PKK how to resolve their differences, how to get international support at the U.N., how to make human rights claims. And he said the government and the court - what the government and the court said today legitimizes the notion that learning can be unconstitutional.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Nina: This is a case, as you said, from before 911. But there must wide implications in a post-911 world.

TOTENBERG: There are wide implications in a post-911 world. What this means is that even talking for peaceful purposes can be criminalized under this statute. Now, the statute has been used far more broadly than that and in ways that nobody on the court questioned today. Justice Breyer, in dissent, for example, he said he understands that charitable contributions can be fungible. They can be used to help a terrorist organization. This case, he's tried to make the point, it's different. But he lost.

INSKEEP: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. She's on the phone from the Supreme Court this morning and telling us about a Supreme Court ruling upholding a federal law that bans what is called material support of foreign terrorist organizations.

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INSKEEP: It's NPR News.

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