The Supreme Court broke its streak of pro-First Amendment decisions in today’s decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. This “very difficult case,” as Justice Kennedy described it at oral argument, was decided by a 6-3 vote in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts. Justice Breyer dissented, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor.
The opinion held that the First Amendment does not bar the criminal prosecution of the Humanitarian Law Project (HLP) under a federal statute criminalizing “material support” to groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States government. HLP provided lessons on international law and non-violence to groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Tamil Tigers. The majority refused, however, to determine whether the federal statute would be constitutional as applied to “more difficult cases” that could arise in the future.
This opinion comes on the heels of two prior cases in which the Court came out with robust pronouncements of First Amendment freedoms. In Citizens United, Justice Kennedy wrote for the conservative bloc striking down significant portions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act as violating the First Amendment. In United States v. Stevens, the Chief Justice wrote for an eight-justice majority deeming unconstitutional a federal statute that criminalized depictions of animal cruelty.
The case’s national security element may have colored the conservative bloc’s opinion, but it does not account for the votes of Justices Stevens and Kennedy, both authors of landmark cases striking down former President George W. Bush’s enemy combatant policies in Guantanamo Bay. Their fingerprints may be seen in the passages urging moderation:
We next consider whether the material-support statute, as applied to plaintiffs, violates the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Both plaintiffs and the Government take extreme positions on this question. Plaintiffs claim that Congress has banned their “pure political speech.” …For its part, the Government takes the foregoing too far, claiming that the only thing truly at issue in this litigation is conduct, not speech or impose any sanction on them for doing so.” Id., at 60. …The First Amendment issue before us is more refined than either plaintiffs or the Government would have it. It is not whether the Government may prohibit pure political speech, or may prohibit material support in the form of conduct. It is instead whether the Government may pro hibit what plaintiffs want to do—provide material support to the PKK and LTTE in the form of speech.
As we explained in Texas v. Johnson: “If the [Government’s] regulation is not related to expression, then the less strin gent standard we announced in United States v. O’Brien for regulations of noncommunicative conduct controls. If it is, then we are outside of O’Brien’s test, and we must [apply] a more demanding standard.”For its part, the Government takes the foregoing too far, claiming that the only thing truly at issue in this litigation is conduct, not speech or impose any sanction on them for doing so.” Id., at 60. …
Stevens dissented in Texas v. Johnson, writing that he would have allowed the criminal law against flag burning to stand where the five-justice majority–in which Justices Scalia and Kennedy joined the liberal bloc of Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun–applied a maximalist view of the First Amendment to strike down the Texas law.
Indeed, today’s case displays Stevens’s deep precedent-bound pragmatism. He not only signed onto an opinion that cited a case from which he dissented, but he also continued his less-than-absolute take on the First Amendment while also showing that he is not an unyielding civil libertarian when it comes to the war on terror.
Justice Breyer read his dissent from the bench today, stating that the federal statute could not survive strict scrutiny. Breyer, however, is no First Amendment maximalist himself, despite this morning’s oral dissent. Today’s decision, when compared with this term’s earlier First Amendment decisions, is a reminder that on the Roberts Court there is no unyielding free speech champion. Instead, the justices use the First Amendment as an ancillary issue to be used to their advantage on cases that touch their greater concerns, be they national security or campaign finance.
Breyer’s oral announcement of his dissent marked the second time this term a justice has done so. Justice Stevens spoke for 20 minutes to protest Citizens United back in January. There may be others yet, as a few more charged cases remain for the Court’s Thursday and Monday sessions.
This report is cross-posted at the ABA Journal’s website. Read here, read there, comment and share everywhere!
Early in this morning’s oral argument in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, Justice Anthony Kennedy plainly remarked, “this is a difficult case for me.” The issue was whether a 1996 federal law banning “material support” to designated terrorist organizations infringed on the First Amendment rights of a group seeking to train Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Sri Lanka’s now-defeated Tamil Tigers in international law advocacy and peacemaking.
But Kennedy’s pondering the disputed law’s ephemeral distinction between proscribable conduct and protected speech appeared to come to an abrupt halt when Solicitor General Elena Kagan conceded to Justice Kennedy that the law could ban lawyers from submitting amicus briefs on behalf of designated terrorist organizations. Here was the government telling attorneys who they could and could not represent in a court of law–not a winning argument before a tribunal of, well, attorneys.
The Court’s liberal bloc–Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor–had already displayed their skepticism towards the government’s asserted ability to criminalize speech meant to assist a terrorist organization’s legal activities. Sotomayor even suggested that “[u]nder the definition of this statute, teaching these members to play the harmonica would be unlawful.”
In response Kagan quipped, “I think the first thing I would say is there are not a whole lot of people going around trying to teach Al-Qaeda how to play harmonicas.” Justice Antonin Scalia, the lone vocal supporter of the government’s argument, saved the Court further talk of harmonicas by shoving Sotomayor’s hypothetical into an absurd vision of chief 9/11 hijacker “Mohammed Atta and his harmonica quartet” touring the country to “make a lot of money.”
Meanwhile, Justice Clarence Thomas just this week marked his streak of silence’s fourth anniversary, but one could assume he’d ally with Scalia in this case, given his previous willingness to prohibit intensely disfavored expressive activity by casting it as pure conduct.
If Kagan’s amicus-ban assertion seemed to crystallize for Kennedy the infirmity of the law in question, Justice Alito may have fallen off the government’s wagon when Kagan explained that Congress did not intend to criminalize one’s meeting with or joining a designated terrorist organization. Queried Alito:
Could you explain how someone could be a member of one of these organizations without providing a service to the organization? Simply by lending one’s name as a member; that might be regarded as a service. If you attended a meeting and you helped to arrange the chairs in advance or clean up afterwards, you would be providing a service to the organization.
However, Alito may have asked this question simply to get Kagan to walk back her distinction between simple membership and criminal service-providing so that he could more easily side with the government. After all, he was the sole supporter of the government’s position in United States v. Stevens, in which the Court is likely to rule a federal ban on depictions of animal cruelty to be an unconstitutionally overbroad restriction on speech. But walk it back Kagan did not.
Even if Alito still finds a way to join Scalia, even if the loquacious Kennedy forgets that lawyers may be silenced, and even if silent Thomas sides at conference with Sotomayor, Chief Justice Roberts signaled an openness to killing the law as applied to HLP. That is, as long as the Court got no government blood on its hands.
During HLP counsel David D. Cole‘s rebuttal, Roberts asked, “why don’t we remand it to the lower courts to apply strict scrutiny if we agree with you that” the law does, in fact, prohibit pure speech as opposed to conduct that incidentally touches speech?
Cole quickly endorsed this plan, knowing that strict scrutiny is nearly always “strict in theory, but fatal in fact.”
But just as soon as Chief Justice Roberts offered up a pleasing resolution for this “difficult” case, Justice Sotomayor jumped in to close the morning with the argument that if money is speech–as the Court strongly affirmed in Citizens United–then Congress could have been onto something after all when it found that money is so fungible that “if you give [terrorist groups] money for legitimate means…it’s going to be syphoned off and used for illegitimate means.” Such a justification for a ban on money-as-speech, Sotomayor suggested, could be “enough under strict scrutiny or under a lesser standard, reasonable fit standard.”
Perhaps Sotomayor believed this, perhaps she was trying to impress upon her conservative colleagues the duty they owed to HLP if they were to remain fully faithful to the First Amendment principles they forcefully articulated in Citizens United.
Either way, Sotomayor’s mixed signals forced the Court to submit HLP the same way it entered: a difficult case, indeed.
The oral argument in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project did little to clarify where the justices themselves stood on the constitutionality of the Patriot Act’s criminalizing HLP’s (hopes of) providing designated terrorist groups with peacemaking advice and international law advocacy training.
Justice Scalia provided the morning’s biggest laugh by referring to the notion of “Mohammed Atta & His Harmonica Quartet” touring the nation–I’ll give that comment’s context in my argument report.
But the most salient statement today fittingly belonged to Justice Kennedy, when he simply stated, “This is a difficult case for me.” As goes Kennedy…
Come back or subscribe to F1@1F to get the full write-up later this afternoon.
When I woke this morning at 2:40am, I thought that I had surely lost the first spot in line. After all, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project is the Court’s first First Amendment case arising out of the past decade’s war on terror. But the winter cold and late night rains conspired against my contemplated competitors: when I power-walked up to the Court, no one else was there.
A few thoughts before I suit up and head back out:
- I have no idea how HLP will turn out. No idea at all. That makes this morning’s oral argument all the more exciting and will hopefully provide for a challenging, yet rewarding, write-up this afternoon. In the meantime, listen to my former boss‘s case preview.
- Opinions today. Expecting a few dogs, but if the Court hands down, say, Salazar v. Buono, Free Enterprise Fund and Beckstead and Watts, LLP v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, or United States v. Stevens, I’ll have some comment up this afternoon.
- The line didn’t really get going until closer to 7am. I am shocked at just how few people got to the Court before dawn. Those who did arrive, however, were all law students, and undergraduate aspiring lawyers. As such, although I had a great time getting to know everyone in line, I will not be writing a vox populi column from this morning’s experience. Instead, look for my report from yesterday’s Lewis v. City of Chicago line to be posted by tonight.
- I’ve started to strike up relationships with the Court’s night shift police officers. They’re friendly, talkative, and have great stories from their years serving at One First. Too bad they won’t go on the record…but I’ll keep trying.
- So very glad that tomorrow’s cases do not compel F1@1F coverage. I love being out there, but I do also love a good night’s sleep.
Shower time. More later today.
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Finally, starting tomorrow night, my reports will be cross-posted at the ABA Journal website’s Supreme Court section. I give a big welcome to those future readers thumbing through F1@1F via abajournal.com.
Time to fit in a few hours of sleep. See you all tomorrow!