CCR Files Constitutional Challenge to Patriot Act

CCR filed papers in a Los Angeles court challenging a provision of the USA Patriot Act that criminalizes the provision of “expert advice and assistance” to proscribed organizations.

On August 5, 2003, attorneys for the Center for Constitutional Rights filed papers in a Los Angeles court challenging a provision of the USA Patriot Act that criminalizes the provision of “expert advice and assistance” to proscribed organizations.  The Patriot Act was enacted just weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks and has been widely criticized for infringing on civil liberties.

CCR challenges a Patriot Act amendment to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a law that makes it a crime to provide material support to any group designated by the Secretary of State as a foreign terrorist organization.  The law, rarely enforced before September 11, has become the linchpin of the Justice Department’s domestic criminal war on terrorism -- virtually every anti-terrorism prosecution filed since September 11 has included a charge under this statute.  The Patriot Act amends the definition of material support to include "expert advice and assistance," and makes it a crime to provide such advice or assistance no matter what its intent and purpose, and even where it has nothing whatsoever to do with furthering terrorism.

In its rush to pass the Patriot Act just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, Congress overlooked one of our most fundamental rights – the right to express our political beliefs, especially those that are controversial. Now it is up to the judiciary to correct Congress’s excesses.

~ CCR Senior Attorney Nancy Chang.

CCR’s motion was filed in a pending lawsuit, Humanitarian Law Project v. Ashcroft, that has already declared unconstitutional part of the material support statute.  In March 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court barred enforcement of criminal bans on providing “personnel” and “training” to proscribed groups, finding that these prohibitions are unconstitutionally vague and could criminalize a wide range of First Amendment-protected speech, from writing an op-ed to lobbying or teaching human rights advocacy.  In October 2001, the district court made that injunction permanent.  The suit, originally filed in 1998, represents the Humanitarian Law Project and its president, several Tamil-American organizations, and a Tamil-American physician.  The plaintiffs sought to provide support in the form of “personnel” and “training” to the solely lawful and humanitarian activities to two proscribed organizations -- the Kurdistan Workers Party of Turkey(PKK), and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE).

In its filing today, CCR argues that the ban on "expert advice and assistance" added by the Patriot Act covers essentially the same activities as, and is as unconstitutionally vague as, the ban on "training" and "personnel," and should also be struck down.  The Humanitarian Law Project and its president, Ralph Fertig, wish to advocate for the PKK before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the United States Congress, write and distribute publications supportive of the PKK’s political goals, and advocate for the freedom of four Turkish political prisoners convicted of being PKK members or supporters.  In addition, they would like to advise the PKK on recent developments in international human rights, the procedures for seeking review by the newly established International Criminal Court, and peacemaking and negotiation skills.  They seek a court order barring the government from prosecuting them for engaging in these activities.

Plaintiff Dr. Jeyalangim is a Tamil-American physician who is deeply concerned for the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka as members of his family were forced to flee that country as refugees.  He would like to alleviate the shortage of trained physicians in the Tamil Eelam region of northeast Sri Lanka by providing his medical services.  However, because some of the hospitals in the region are run by the LTTE, Dr. Jeyalangim is afraid to do so because he fears prosecution for providing material support.

The plaintiffs in Humanitarian Law Project v. Ashcroft are represented by David Cole and Nancy Chang of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and by Carol Sobel, Paul Hoffman, and V. Rudrakumaran.

The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at


Last modified 

March 1, 2011