WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a law that bars Americans from providing support to foreign terrorist groups, rejecting arguments that it violated constitutional rights of free speech and association.
The decision came in the first test to reach the Supreme Court after the September 11, 2001, attacks of a case pitting the right of U.S. citizens to speak and associate freely against the government's efforts to fight terrorism.
In a victory for the Obama administration, the justices voted, 6-3, to reverse a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that declared parts of the law unconstitutionally vague.
The law barring material support was first adopted in 1996 and strengthened by the USA Patriot Act adopted by Congress right after the September 11 attacks. It was amended again in 2004.
The law bars knowingly providing any service, training, expert advice or assistance to any foreign organization designated by the U.S. State Department as terrorist.
The law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, does not require any proof the defendant intended to further any act of terrorism or violence by the foreign group.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the law was constitutional and rejected the specific challenge before it. He said the court did not address the "more difficult cases" that may arise under the law in the future.
The legal challenge had been brought by groups and individuals who wanted to help the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. The State Department designated both as foreign terrorist groups.
The Humanitarian Law Project in Los Angeles had previously provided human rights advocacy training to the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, and the main Kurdish political party in Turkey.
The Humanitarian Law group and others sued in an effort to renew support for what they described as lawful, nonviolent activities overseas.
"The Supreme Court has ruled that human rights advocates, providing training and assistance in the nonviolent resolution of disputes, can be prosecuted as terrorists," said Georgetown University law professor David Cole, who argued the case.
"In the name of fighting terrorism, the court has said that the First Amendment permits Congress to make it a crime to work for peace and human rights. That is wrong," Cole said.
Obama administration lawyers defended the law and called it a vital weapon in the government's effort to fight terrorism.
Since 2001, the United States has charged about 150 defendants with the material support of terrorism and about half have been convicted, the Justice Department said.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented with Breyer saying the court majority ultimately "deprives the individuals before us of the protection that the First Amendment demands."
He said the court failed to examine the government's justifications for the law with sufficient care.
The Supreme Court cases are Holder v. Humanitarian Law project, No. 08-1498, and Humanitarian Law Project v. Holder, No. 09-89.
Editing by Bill Trott