Advising Terrorism: Material Support, Safe Harbors, and Freedom of Speech

Peter Margulies

Volume 63, Issue 2, 455-520

Ever since Brandenburg v. Ohio, departures from content neutrality under the First Amendment have received strict scrutiny. However, in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (“HLP”), the Supreme Court decided that the perils of content regulation were less pressing than was the need to curb the human capital of groups, such as Hamas, designated as foreign terrorist organizations (“DFTOs”). As a result, the Court upheld a statute that bars “material support” of terrorist organizations, ruling that the statute bars speech coordinated with DFTOs, including training in negotiation or the use of international law. Some commentators have labeled HLP as heralding a new McCarthyism. This Article argues that critics who condemn HLPas the reincarnation of Cold War content regulation overlook the tailored quality of the decision’s hybrid scrutiny model, its roots in the Framers’ concerns about foreign influence, and its surprising parallels with constitutional justifications for professional regulation.

HLP is not the marked departure that critics claim. Just as professional regulation limits lawyers’ use of pretrial publicity, HLP reduced the impact of asymmetries in information that terrorist groups exploit. To constrain government, HLP’s framework of hybrid scrutiny also provides a safe harbor for the independent expression of ideas, and for scholars, journalists, human rights monitors, and attorneys.

Nevertheless, HLP’s critics are right that the Court’s decision is flawed. Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion invited confusion about the First Amendment status of lending “legitimacy” to violence, which could quickly drain the safe harbor that the Court created for independent advocacy. The opinion also made a studied show of deference to official sources, disdaining independent accounts of terrorist groups’ penchant for defection. Only the next case will tell if these flaws were minor missteps in a balanced decision or signs of a more severe conflict with First Amendment values.

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