Free speech instruction sought in terror trial

Lawyers for a Massachusetts man accused of plotting to help al-Qaida have asked the trial judge to instruct the jury on his free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Prosecutors say Tarek Mehanna, of Sudbury, traveled to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp and conspired with others to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. When that failed, he began translating and distributing text and videos over the Internet in an attempt to inspire others to engage in violent jihad, according to an indictment.

Mehanna's lawyers argue that his online activities are protected by the right to free speech under the First Amendment.

Testimony is scheduled to begin Thursday in Mehanna's trial.

On Wednesday, his lawyers filed court documents asking Judge George O'Toole Jr. to tell the jury that the right to free speech includes the right to advocate force or violence, unless the speech is likely to incite "imminent lawless action." The proposed instructions say the "bedrock principle" of the First Amendment is that "the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."

The judge didn't immediately rule.

Mehanna's lawyers say he went to Yemen to seek religious study, not terrorist training.

Mehanna, 29, faces seven charges, including conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization, conspiracy to kill in a foreign country and making false statements.