Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project

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Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued February 23, 2010
Decided June 21, 2010
Full case nameHolder et al. v. Humanitarian Law Project et al.
Docket no.08-1498
Citations561 U.S. 1 (more)
130 S. Ct. 2705; 177 L. Ed. 2d 355
Case history
PriorHumanitarian Law Project v. Mukasey, 552 F.3d 916 (9th Cir. 2009)
The federal government may prohibit providing non-violent material support for terrorist organizations, including legal services and advice, without violating the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Samuel Alito · Sonia Sotomayor
Case opinions
MajorityRoberts, joined by Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito
DissentBreyer, joined by Ginsburg, Sotomayor
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I; 18 U.S.C. § 2339B

Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 561 U.S. 1 (2010), was a case decided in June 2010 by the United States Supreme Court regarding the USA PATRIOT Act's prohibition on providing material support to foreign terrorist organizations (18 U.S.C. § 2339B). The case, petitioned by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder,[1] represents the only time in U.S. First Amendment jurisprudence that a restriction on political speech has passed the Brandenburg v. Ohio test.[2]

The Supreme Court ruled against the Humanitarian Law Project, which sought to help the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey and Sri Lanka's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam learn how to peacefully resolve conflicts.[3] It concluded that Congress had intended to prevent aid to such groups, even if for the purpose of facilitating peace negotiations or United Nations processes, because that assistance did fit the law's definition of material aid as “training”, “expert advice or assistance”, “service”, and “personnel”. The finding was based on the principle that any assistance could help to "legitimate" the terrorist organization, and free up its resources for terrorist activities.[4]

The court noted that the proposed actions of the Humanitarian Law Project were general and "entirely hypothetical", implying that a post-enforcement challenge to the application of the "material support" provisions is not foreclosed.


Former President Jimmy Carter criticized the decision, arguing that "The 'material support law' – which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism – actually threatens The Carter Center's work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence. The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom."[5]

Elisabeth Decrey-Warner, president of the Swiss NGO Geneva Call also expressed her disapproval, stating that "Civilians caught in the middle of conflicts and hoping for peace will suffer from this decision. How can you start peace talks or negotiations if you don’t have the right to speak to both parties?"[6]

In January 2011, David Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, who argued the case for the Humanitarian Law Project, commented on developments since the decision. He noted that several prominent former officeholders, including Rudolph Giuliani and Tom Ridge, had spoken in support of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian opposition group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.[7] He stated that he supported their right to speak but that even nonviolent advocacy (such as urging that a designation as "terrorist" be revoked) was illegal under the Supreme Court's decision. He also pointed to exemptions granted under the rubric of "humanitarian aid" that turned out to include products like cigarettes and chewing gum.[7] He stated: "Under current law, it seems, the right to make profits is more sacrosanct than the right to petition for peace, and the need to placate American businesses more compelling than the need to provide food and shelter to earthquake victims and war refugees".[7]

Linguist Noam Chomsky criticized[8] the decision as an issue of freedom of speech and stated that it constituted "the first major attack on freedom of speech in the United States since the notorious Smith Act back around 1940".[9] He also stated that it had troubling legal implications since Humanitarian Law Project gave out advice to Turkish PKK which urged the group to pursue nonviolence.[10]

The magazine Mother Jones said that "the Supreme Court ruled that even protected speech can be a criminal act if it occurs at the direction of a terrorist organization". It goes on to say that people "could be convicted of materially supporting terrorism merely for translating a document or putting an extremist video online, depending on [their] intentions".[11]

Representatives of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement stated that the ruling would probably not affect their operations or their relationship with the American government.[6]


In September 2010 the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided activists in Minneapolis and Chicago, seizing computers, cell phones and files and issuing subpoenas to some targeted individuals to appear before a federal grand jury. The FBI agents were seeking evidence of ties to groups deemed by the U.S. government to be foreign terrorist organizations, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.[12][13] Attorneys linked the raids to the Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project decision.[14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Unknown author, (Aug 4, 2012) Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, retrieved August 7, 2012
  2. ^ Eugene Volokh, The First Amendment and Related Statutes: Problems, Cases and Policy Arguments, page 259. Foundation Press, 4th Edition 2011.
  3. ^ Adam Liptak, Court Affirms Ban on Aiding Groups Tied to Terror, The New York Times, June 21, 2010.
  4. ^ Liptak, Adam (2010-02-23). "Before the Supreme Court, First Amendment and Aid to Terrorists". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-04-04.
  5. ^ American Civil Liberties Union (June 21, 2010). "Supreme Court Rules "Material Support" Law Can Stand". Retrieved September 26, 2010.
  6. ^ a b Marcus Berry (July 14, 2010). "Supreme Court ruling threatens Swiss NGO efforts". Retrieved September 26, 2010..
  7. ^ a b c Cole, David (2011-01-02) Chewing Gum for Terrorists, New York Times
  8. ^ Noam Chomsky Videos (2014-04-20), Noam Chomsky on "Freedom of Speech and Anti Fascism", retrieved 2017-05-16
  9. ^ Chomsky, Noam. "Chomsky on Obama vs. Free Speech".
  10. ^ "Democracy Uprising" in the U.S.A.?: Noam Chomsky on Wisconsin’s Resistance to Assault on Public Sector, the Obama-Sanctioned Crackdown on Activists, and the Distorted Legacy of Ronald Reagan. Democracy Now!, February 17, 2011
  11. ^ Adam Serwer, Does Posting Jihadist Material Make Tarek Mehanna a Terrorist?, Mother Jones, December 16, 2011.
  12. ^ Colin Moynihan, F.B.I. Searches Antiwar Activists’ Homes, New York Times, September 24, 2010
  13. ^ Search warrant and subpoena (Indymedia)
  14. ^ Sheila Regan, FBI raids activist homes in Minneapolis, Chicago, Twin Cities Daily Planet, September 24, 2010.
  15. ^ Activists to Protest Recent FBI Raids on Anti-War Members, Associated Press, September 24, 2010.

External links[edit]