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For the First Time Part of Patriot Act Ruled Unconstitutional

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A district judge ruled unconstitutional one provision of the USA Patriot Act that bans certain types of support for terrorist groups saying the law was so vague that it risked running afoul of the First Amendment. We speak with the attorney who argued the case. [includes transcript]

For the first time a federal judge has ruled portions of the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional. The Patriot Act was signed into law six weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and has long been criticized by civil liberties groups. U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled unconstitutional one provision that bans certain types of support for terrorist groups. The judge said the law was so vague that it risked running afoul of the First Amendment. The case was filed by the Humanitarian Law Project which gave “human rights” training to the Kurdistan Workers Party, which is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

The group’s attorney David Cole told the Washington Post, “Our clients sought only to support lawful and nonviolent activity, yet the Patriot Act provision draws no distinction whatsoever between expert advice in human rights, designed to deter violence, and expert advice on how to build a bomb.”

  • David Cole, professor at Georgetown Law School and author of the book “Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: David Cole joins us on the line right now, professor at Georgetown Law School and author of the book, “Enemy Aliens.” Welcome to Democracy Now!

DAVID COLE: Thanks for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you argued the case. Can you talk about the significance of the victory?

DAVID COLE: Well, I should say that I argued the case on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights along with Nancy Chang. The significance of the victory is that this underscores what so many people have said for so long about the Patriot Act, which is that Congress, in its haste to pass something after the attacks of 9-11, and under a threat from the Attorney General that if they didn’t pass something tomorrow, the blood of the victims would be on their hands, Congress failed to take seriously the constitutional liberties that the Administration was seeking to trample on. And here a Federal court has said that they trampled on the First Amendment, one of the most basic of our liberties, namely the right to speak, by prohibiting all advice provided to any group labeled as a terrorist group, without regard to whether that advice is designed to deter terrorism or further terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you expect this outcome?

DAVID COLE: Well, yeah, I think that we were quite confident that we would prevail in part because we had brought a lawsuit on behalf of the same Humanitarian Law Project and a number of other groups against the 1996 anti-terrorism statute. The court in that case has struck down prohibitions on providing personnel and training to designated terrorist groups. And — you know, in our view, “expert advice and assistance,” the new term which we challenged, that was put in the Patriot Act, was essentially a synonym for “training,” which had already been struck down by the Court. One of the more remarkable things is that Congress, in the face of judicial decisions that had declared a prohibition on training and personnel unconstitutional, turns around and passes the prohibition on providing advice — expert advice and assistance. So, I think we were quite confident that the court would strike it down, but of course, you never know after 9-11 what a court will do.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the rest of the Patriot Act?

DAVID COLE: Well, there’s a lot there. You know, the Patriot Act, as your listeners well know, was a massive bill, 342 pages. A lot of it has not been challenged as unconstitutional. I think a lot of it is not all that controversial. A number of other provisions have been challenged, including the library’s provision, the infamous library provision, which allows the Government to get records from any business entity on anyone, as long as they say it’s related to a terrorist investigation. That’s been challenged by the ACLU in a case in Detroit that’s pending. There’s a provision that essentially waters down the probable cause requirement for wiretaps and searches of homes, in cases where there’s some foreign intelligence connection. That has been challenged in a number of cases, and has been — the Government has gotten guilty pleas, so it has avoided having to confront that, but the case of Samuel Al-Arian down in Florida has challenged that. I suspect that will be challenged repeatedly each time the Government seeks to use information obtained under that provision in a court of law. There’s another provision that has been challenged unsuccessfully which allows the Government to freeze assets of any entity which is labeled a terrorist entity, and then defend that freezing in court using secret evidence. That’s been challenged by a couple of the Muslim charities — you know, that have had their assets frozen. And the courts thus far have rejected that challenge.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much David Cole, for joining us again. David Cole argued the case, part of the USA Patriot Act being struck down. David Cole, professor of law at Georgetown University and author of the book, “Enemy Aliens.” You are listening to Democracy Now!

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