Disregarding the dictionary as well as the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that advising foreign terrorist groups to pursue their objectives peacefully amounts to "material support" of their violent activities. The 6-3 ruling blurs a distinction that Congress needs to sharpen in the interest of free speech.
The ruling is a defeat for two groups of activists that want to engage in so-called peace building. One is a collection of organizations supportive of the humanitarian and political activities of Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka. The other, headed by USC professor Ralph Fertig, wants to advise the Kurdistan Workers' Party on how to take its grievances against Turkey to the United Nations.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. concluded that such efforts violate a law making it a crime to "knowingly provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization" designated by the State Department. But that is an unconvincing reading of the statute, and one that offends the Constitution.
"Knowingly" in this context can be read in two ways, but one is truer to the 1st Amendment — namely that the advisor knows not only that a group he is dealing with is a terrorist organization but that his involvement will further acts of terrorism. As for "material support," the law contains several common-sense definitions including financial assistance, explosives, lodging, communications equipment and "expert advice or assistance."