Supreme Court Erodes Peace Advocacy

The recent Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project decision by the US Supreme Court seems to further an attack on freedom of speech by the Court. The case arose out of the Humanitarian Law Project’s assistance of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) in establishing peace with Turkey. Because the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by the US government, the Court ruled that the HLP was aiding and abetting terrorism.

Under the Court’s decision, then, anyone who preaches peace/nonviolence may be subject to charges of supporting terrorism.

David Cole, a Law Professor at Georgetown University, wrote in the New York Times that:

In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment protected even the right to advocate criminal activity, so long as one’s advocacy was not intended and likely to produce an imminent crime. And it ruled that citizens had a right to associate with a group engaged in both legal and illegal activities, as long as they intended to further only the group’s lawful activities.

Today, by contrast, the court rules that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolent activity can be made a crime, and that any coordination with a blacklisted group can land a citizen in prison for 15 years.

The criminalization of peace advocacy has real world implications that weaken American interests. Researchers Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod argue that many of the strategies employed by individuals and NGOs that have helped end conflict are now illegal. If one believes, as Cole has argued, that “once the government invoked the ‘terrorist’ label, the court deferred, rather than require the government to meet the heavy burden that prohibitions on speech generally require,” then the court has further enabled the terrorists to erode our liberties. 

We are now curtailed from using means of preventing and defusing conflict. If, as certain commentators suggest, Americans are becoming radicalized on the internet, we cannot counter that radicalization by offering alternatives, because if they commit a terrorist act we are guilty of aiding them. The question is where do such limitations end. If a blog post lists a series of nonviolent alternatives for various militant actors, and one of those actors reads that post, is the author guilty of a crime?

There is also question of whether the ruling will be applied equally to all groups. If the Court surrendered to the fear of terrorists, is that fear just of Muslims? In other words, will talking with the Jewish Defense League/Kach/Kahane Chai or the Ku Klux Klan also be considered aiding terrorism?

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