The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a law that forbids providing training and advice to terrorist groups, even about entirely peaceful and legal activities, saying that it does not violate the free-speech rights of those who want to help.
The court ruled, 6-3, that Congress and the executive branch had legitimate reasons for barring "material support" to foreign organizations deemed to be terrorists in the USA Patriot Act.
Those challenging the law "simply disagree with the considered judgment of Congress and the executive that providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization -- even seemingly benign support -- bolsters the terrorist activities of that organization," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.
"That judgment, however, is entitled to significant weight, and we have persuasive evidence before us to sustain it."
He was joined by the court's conservatives -- Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- as well as its most liberal member, retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer took the relatively unusual step of reading his dissent from the bench, saying the court had abandoned its role of protecting individual liberties under the First Amendment because of national security threats that Congress did not adequately justify.
"In such cases, our decisions must reflect the Constitution's grant of foreign affairs and defense powers to the president and to Congress, but without denying our own special judicial obligation to protect the constitutional rights of individuals," Breyer said.
"That means that national security does not always win."
He was joined in the dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
The aid groups that challenged the law had trained a Kurdish group in Turkey on how to bring human rights complaints to the United Nations and assisted them in peace negotiations. They suspended the activities when the United States designated the Kurdish organization, known as the PKK, a terrorist group in 1997. The groups wanted to give similar help to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, but it also was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997.
Nearly four dozen organizations are on the State Department list, including al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah.
It is easy to see how money is "fungible," Roberts wrote; funds used for humanitarian aid to the groups could free up money that could be used for violent ends. But he said the same was true of "material support."
Roberts tried to limit the opinion. He said that "future applications of the material-support statue to speech or advocacy" may not survive First Amendment scrutiny.