Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

PETITIONER: Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General, et al.
RESPONDENT: Humanitarian Law Project, et al.
LOCATION: U.S. Capitol Building

DOCKET NO.: 08-1498
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 561 US 1 (2010)
GRANTED: Sep 30, 2009
ARGUED: Feb 23, 2010
DECIDED: Jun 21, 2010

Elena Kagan - for Eric H. Holder, Jr. Attorney General, et al.
David D. Cole - for Humanitarian Law Project, et al.

Facts of the case

Among the plaintiffs in this case are supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party ("KWP") and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ("LTTE"). The KWP and LTTE engage in a variety of both lawful and unlawful activities. They sought an injunction to prevent the government from enforcing sections of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA"). Section 302 authorizes the Secretary of State to designate a group as a "foreign terrorist organization." Section 303 makes it a crime for anyone to provide "material support or resources" to even the nonviolent activities of a designated organization. In previous cases, the courts have held that Section 303 was unconstitutionally vague. Congress then passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act ("IRTPA") which amended the AEDPA. It added a state of mind requirement that individuals "knowingly" provide "material support or resources" in order to violate the Act. Congress also added terms to the Act that further clarified what constituted "material support or resources." The government moved for summary judgment arguing that challenged provisions of the AEDPA were not unconstitutionally vague. The district court granted a partial motion for summary judgment, but held that some parts of the Act were unconstitutionally vague.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that the terms "service," "training," or "other specialized knowledge" within the AEDPA, as applied to the plaintiffs, were unconstitutionally vague.


Are provisions of the AEDPA which prohibit providing "any . . . service, . . . training, [or] other specialized knowledge" to designated foreign terrorist organizations unconstitutionally vague?

Media for Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 2010 in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 21, 2010 in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

I have the opinion of the Court in case 08-1498, Eric Holder, Attorney General versus the Humanitarian Law Project and the cross petition.

This litigation involves a challenge to a federal law, making it a crime to provide “material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.”

It is up to the Secretary of State to designate a group as a foreign terrorist organization under the law.

That designation is subject to judicial review.

If the designation is upheld or not challenged, it becomes unlawful to provide the group with material support.

The statute defines material support to include things like money and weapons, but also the types of support that are at issue here, training, expert advice or assistance, services and personnel.

The plaintiffs in this case challenge the statute, seeking an injunction to prevent the government from prosecuting them.

They claim that the statute is unconstitutional not in general, but as applied to particular activities that they want to pursue.

The plaintiffs want to provide support to two designated foreign terrorist organizations, the PKK which is a group dedicated to establishing an independent Kurdish state in Turkey and the LTTE which is dedicated to establishing an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

Both groups engage in political and humanitarian activities, but they also engage extensively in terrorism, including terrorist attacks that have harmed American citizens.

The plaintiffs, however, explain that they wish to support only the peaceful, lawful activities of the PKK and the LTTE.

In particular they want to train the PKK to use international law to resolve disputes peacefully, teach the PKK to petition the United States and other representative bodies for relief and engage in political advocacy on behalf of Kurds living in Turkey and Tamils living in Sri Lanka.

Now this litigation has a very complicated 12-year history.

Suffice it to say that the district court partially enjoying the enforcement of the statute against the plaintiffs and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

We granted certiorari to review that decision.

Plaintiffs argue that the material support statute violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment because it is too vague and that the statute violates their rights of free speech and association under the First Amendment.

All members of the Court agree that the material support statute is not vague as applied to these plaintiffs.

The Court of Appeals below reached the opposite conclusion, but it did so by improperly merging plaintiff's vagueness claims with their First Amendment claims.

It essentially concluded that the statute was vague because it applied to speech, but if a clear statute applies to speech it is still clear.

The statute might violate the First Amendment but that is separate from a claim that it is vague.

Under a proper analysis plaintiffs cannot succeed on their vagueness claims because their application of the statute to their proposed activities is straightforward.

Turning to the First Amendment issue both sides in the case, the government and the plaintiffs, present extreme positions, and we reject them both.

We reject the plaintiff's view that the statute bans pure political speech, it does not.

Under this law the plaintiffs may say anything they wish on any topic.

They may speak and write freely about the PKK and the LTTE, the governments of Turkey and Sri Lanka, human rights and international law.

They may advocate before the United Nations.

What they may not do is engage in a narrow range of speech that qualifies as material support under the statute, training, advice or services to or in connection with foreign terrorist groups.

Now at the same time we also reject the Government's view that this case is only about conduct not speech.

These plaintiffs want to speak to the PKK and teach them things like international dispute resolution.

That means that the government has to satisfy a more demanding standard than if the case were just about conduct.