Free Speech or Treason: Finding the Correct Standard for Material Support

Free Speech or Treason: Finding the Correct Standard for Material Support

Abigail Castleberry

            On February 13, 2004, Dr. Tarek Mehanna returned to his home in Boston after a ten-day trip to Abu Dhabi and Yemen. Prosecutors pointed to this trip in arguing that Mehanna provided himself as personnel to Al-Qaeda, though no proof of actual contact was presented to the jury. Later in 2005. Mehanna, at the request of an acquaintance, provided English translations of Arabic-language materials for a website. Mehanna also disseminated certain Arabic texts raising points of Islamic doctrine and opposition to the United States’ actions in Iraq. No evidence was presented at trial showing that any of this material was solicited by Al-Qaeda, and most of the evidence pointed to Mehanna’s actions being an expression of his own personal views. Mehanna was arrested in November of 2008, right before departing to Saudi Arabia for a clinical pharmacy position. After Mehanna refused to serve as an informant, the government filed terrorism charges. Mehanna was convicted of providing “material support” to a terrorist organization, the charge most often used in federal terrorism cases. [1] The statute forbids four types of material support: training, expert advice or assistance, service, and personnel. [2] Prosecutors argued that Mehanna’s translations and postings provided a service to Al-Qaeda. Mehanna was convicted and sentenced to seventeen years, and he appealed to the First Circuit  Court of Appeals which affirmed the conviction. [3] Mehanna has applied for certiorari from the United States Supreme Court.

The foundation of the case is the meaning of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.[4] In Humanitarian Law Project, the Court held that the material support statute could constitutionally prohibit “coordinated” speech such as the direct, interactive teaching. [5] Furthermore, the court defined “service” to “cover advocacy performed in coordination with, or at least at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization.” [6] However, the Court made it clear that individual advocacy could not be covered by the statute.[7] Humanitarian Law Project did leave open the exact definition of “coordination,” noting that the “’gradation of fact or charge would made a difference as to criminal liability,’ and so adjudication of the reach and constitutionality of the statute must await a concrete situation.”[8] Mehanna claims his case is the ideal for testing the contours of the “material support” statute.

The essential question in this case is how broadly or narrowly the Court will define “coordination.” According to the government’s argument, speech is unprotected when the purpose is in support of the enemy. Therefore, moral support is essentially “coordination” according the government. Such a broad definition likely violates Mehanna’s First Amendment rights. However, there are multiple standards in defining “coordination,” and depending upon the standard that is applied, the outcome of Mehanna’s case could potentially have drastic variations. The standard asserted by the government is likely too broad and difficult to apply. Determining whether speech is in support of the enemy would be an extensively subjective analysis. Under this standard, even a mild condoning of the enemy’s action could be construed as aiding the enemy. Therefore, under this standard, Mehanna’s conviction would likely stand. Though Mehanna had no direct connections with Al Qaeda, his translations likely were read by members and potential trainees. Therefore, the postings and translations would meet the government’s standard for coordination.

The best standard, and the one that likely adheres to the wording of the material support statute, would require actual contact and dealing with the enemy. This standard is supported by the Humanitarian Law Project in which the Court stated that individual advocacy could not be construed as falling under the material support statute. Unlike the government’s standard, requiring contact and dealing with terrorist groups is beneficial on two fronts. First, the standard respects the First Amendment. Those who voice an opinion in support of a terrorist group’s actions will be protected. However, the standard also follows treason jurisprudence by supporting the proposition “trafficking with the enemy, in whatever form, is wholly outside the shelter of the First Amendment. Congress may make criminal any type of dealing with the enemy which in its judgment may have the potentiality of harm to our national interest.”[9] Furthermore, the narrower application of the material support statute would focus law enforcement resources in pursuing individual who pose an actual threat.

The Court is waiting on arguments from the government before deciding to grant certiorari. Even if the Court refuses to grant certiorari, the issues surrounding this case pose a fundamental question on what our nation sees as treason. At a time when America faces new and unpredictable threats, the Court needs clear precedent in guiding law enforcement about the rights of citizens in this new environment.

[1] 18 U.S.C. § 2339B (2012).

[2] Id.

[3] United  States v. Mehanna, 735 F.3d 32 (1st Cir. 2013).

[4] 560 U.S. 1 (2010).

[5] Id. at 2709.

[6] Id. at 2709-10.

[7] Id. at 2709.

[8] Id. at 2722.

[9] Chandler v. United States, 171 F.2d 921, 939 (1st Cir. 1948).


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