LOS ANGELES – For the first time, a federal judge has thrown out a section of the USA Patriot Act (search) that bars giving expert advice or assistance to groups designated foreign terrorist organizations.
In a ruling handed down late Friday and made available Monday, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins said the ban is impermissibly vague in its wording.
The U.S. Justice Department (search) is reviewing the ruling, spokesman Mark Corallo said in a statement from Washington.
Corallo called the Patriot Act — the federal anti-terrorism statute passed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 — "an essential tool in the war on terror" and asserted that the portion at issue in the ruling was only a modest amendment to a pre-existing anti-terrorism law.
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who argued the case on behalf of the Humanitarian Law Project, declared the ruling "a victory for everyone who believes the war on terrorism ought to be fought consistent with constitutional principles."
"It is the first federal court decision declaring any part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional," he said.
The case before the court involved five groups and two U.S. citizens seeking to provide support for lawful, nonviolent activities on behalf of Kurdish refugees in Turkey.
The Los Angeles-based Humanitarian Law Project (search) said the plaintiffs were threatened with 15 years in prison if they advised groups on seeking a peaceful resolution of the Kurds' campaign for self-determination in Turkey.
The judge's ruling said the law, as written, does not differentiate between impermissible advice on violence and encouraging the use of peaceful, nonviolent means to achieve goals.
"The USA Patriot Act places no limitation on the type of expert advice and assistance which is prohibited and instead bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature," the judge said.
The ruling specified that the plaintiffs seek to provide support to "the lawful, nonviolent activities" of the Kurdistan Workers' Party and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an advocate group for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Both groups are on a list issued by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1997 of "foreign terrorist organizations."
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tiger rebels have been engaged in a two-decade civil war that has killed more than 65,000 people. Turkey's military has been battling Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy since 1984, a fight that has left some 37,000 people dead.
Under the Patriot Act, the U.S. prohibition on providing "material support" or "resources" to terrorist groups was expanded to include "expert advice or assistance."
The ruling follows a December decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn portions of a sweeping 1996 anti-terror law which preceded the Patriot Act. A three-judge panel found the law's reference to financial assistance or "material support" to terrorist organizations was overbroad.
The government has asked for a rehearing of the three-judge decision by the entire circuit court.
Another challenge to the Patriot Act is pending in Detroit. In that case, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the law gives federal agents unlimited and unconstitutional authority to secretly seize library reading lists and other personal records.