In This Article, I Show How Easy It Is For Peaceful People to Violate the Patriot Act and Face 15 Years in Jail
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Last month, the Supreme Court exposed Americans to jail sentences of up to 15 years just for giving advice to groups the U.S. government considers untouchable. In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the court ruled that the USA Patriot Act's expanded definition of “material support” for “foreign terrorist organizations” passes Constitutional muster. The broad wording of the statute not only makes it a crime to support violent activities, but also prohibits Americans from offering "services" or "training, expert advice or assistance" to any entity designated as a terrorist group.
Providing weapons, materials or know-how that might help terrorists commit violent acts has long been a crime, but it was only with the rushed passage of the Patriot Act just weeks following the 9/11 attacks that “expert advice or assistance” was added to the definition of “material support.”
The Constitution offers Americans the freedom of speech and association. There are only a few exceptions -- you don’t have a right to associate with people conducting a criminal act, and your freedom of speech doesn’t extend to "fighting words," inciting a riot or other forms of speech that might lead to violence.
In criminalizing non-violent speech, the ruling is anathema to our system of constitutional government. In this article I’ll demonstrate just how easy it is to violate the Patriot Act by giving some peaceful advice to a few of the 45 groups the State Department has designated as foreign terrorist organizations.
To Hezbollah: Domestic politics aside, the legitimacy of your organization rests on its ability to provide social services and its participation in Lebanese politics, not from your paramilitary wing’s clashes with the Israeli Defense Forces. Lay down your arms and consolidate your political strength.
To the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): Consider re-establishing the Guerrilla Coordinating Board you joined in order to negotiate with the Colombian government. Re-establish prisoner exchanges with Bogotá as a confidence builder, and stop the policy of assassinating indigenous peoples who oppose your agenda.
To the Real Irish Republican Army: Given the history and reality on the ground, it’s virtually impossible to achieve independence and unification of Ireland by force. Disband your military organization and join the 10-year-old peace process. And engage with the government in Northern Ireland, which has attained political legitimacy along the way.
The Supreme Court has ruled that if I leave it at that -- expressing my own views without being in contact with any group designated as a terrorist organization -- I’m fine. But if I send this column to an official of Hezbollah or FARC -- if I communicate with them directly -- I’ll be committing a serious crime.
When the “material support” statute was first enacted in the 1990s, a person didn’t need to know that a group they supported was listed as a terrorist organization in order to run afoul of the law. But after a district court agreed to hear a challenge to the provision, Congress modified the law so that people who, for example, unwittingly sent a few bucks to a charity that turned out to be associated with terrorism would be in the clear. However, in places like Gaza, where Hamas controls a lot of ground, it’s virtually impossible to deliver humanitarian relief without talking to members of a “terrorist” organization.
Since 2001, Islamic charities have struggled to deal with the uncertainty caused by the material support provision. According to the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, “Muslims fulfilling their obligation to contribute to [charity]…risk inadvertently supporting a current or future [Foreign Terrorist Organization]. In 2004, in order to avoid this, Muslim leaders asked the DOJ for a list of acceptable charities. The DOJ responded that their request was ‘impossible to fulfill’ and that it was ‘not in a position to put out lists of any kind, particularly of any organizations that are good or bad.’" Several people have already been jailed in the United States for their charitable activities in the Islamic world.