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CCR Wins Great Victory: Key Provision of the Patriot Act Ruled Unconstitutional

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A district court judge declared an important provision of the USA Patriot Act unconstitutional because it is so vague that it “could be construed to include unequivocally pure speech and advocacy protected by the First Amendment.”  The ruling is the first such ruling on the USA Patriot Act.

January 27, 2004 – CCR announced yesterday that a federal court in Los Angeles has declared unconstitutional a provision of the USA PATRIOT Act, enacted six weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  This is the first judicial ruling in the country declaring part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional.  In a decision issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled that a ban on providing “expert advice and assistance” to terrorist groups violates the First and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution because it is so vague that it “could be construed to include unequivocally pure speech and advocacy protected by the First Amendment.”

David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a CCR cooperating attorney, said, “This decision calls into question the government’s reliance on overbroad laws imposing guilt by association in the war on terrorism. Our clients sought only to support lawful and nonviolent activity, yet the Patriot Act provision draws no distinction whatsoever between expert advice in human rights, designed to deter violence, and expert advice on how to build a bomb.  We think the Constitution demands that the law recognize the difference between furthering human rights and furthering violence.”

The law was challenged by CCR on behalf of the Humanitarian Law Project, a human rights organization that seeks to provide human rights training to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which represents the Kurds in Turkey, and its president.  The other plaintiffs include a Tamil-American physician and several groups of Tamils-Americans that seek to support the lawful activities of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of North Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Both the PKK and the LTTE, the district court ruled, engage in a broad range of lawful, nonviolent activity, and the plaintiffs seek to support only the lawful activities of such groups.  Yet the broad Patriot Act ban on providing “expert advice and assistance” has led the groups to fear providing such support, for fear of facing criminal sanctions.

The PATRIOT Act provision declared unconstitutional amended a 1996 antiterrorism law that criminalizes all provision of “material support” to groups designated as “foreign terrorist organizations” by the Secretary of State.  In a related case involving many of the same parties, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in December that two other prohibitions contained in that law – prohibitions on providing “training” and “personnel” to designated terrorist groups – were unconstitutional.  The Justice Department has aggressively invoked the material support statute since the attacks of September 11, using it to charge, among others, John Walker Lindh; the Lackawanna Six, who attended an Al Qaeda training camp; a group of men in Portland, Oregon, who allegedly sought to travel to Afghanistan to fight on behalf of the Taliban; a group of men in Virginia who allegedly sought to support a designated group in Kashmir; and James Ujaama, a black activist in Seattle, Washington.

Nancy Chang, senior staff counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel on the case, said, “The Patriot Act was passed by Congress in tremendous haste and with little deliberation over its restrictions on civil liberties, under intense pressure from the Bush administration.  The court’s ruling affirms the principle that, in fighting terrorism, Congress and the President are not free to ignore our fundamental constitutional rights.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.