The criminalization of speech since 9/11

Article by Justin Elliot.


Last week, a 24-year-old Virginia man named Jubair Ahmad was arrested and charged with providing “material support” to an officially designated terrorist organization, the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

But Ahmad is not accused of sending money or weapons to LeT, or scouting out targets for the group. What had Ahmad allegedly done? Uploaded a “propaganda video to YouTube on behalf of LeT” that showed “so-called jihadi martyrs and armored trucks exploding after having been hit by improvised explosive devices,” according to the Justice Department. Ahmad allegedly had spoken to the son of an LeT figure about making the video.

The case is an example of prosecutors’ aggressive use, in the decade after Sept. 11, of the preexisting law that bars providing “material support” to officially designated terrorist groups. In a landmark case last year, the Supreme Court endorsed the government’s broad interpretation of the material-support law in a way that critics say criminalizes speech.

The expanded use of the material-support law is an important part of the legacy of 9/11 and the legal regime erected in response to the attacks. To learn more about the history and use of the material-support statute, I spoke with Hina Shamsi, the director of  the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

What does the material-support law say, exactly?

It gives the government the power to designate non-U.S. groups as foreign terrorist organizations based on very broad criteria. That includes whether the group has used or threatened to use a weapon against personal property; whether the group’s activities undermine our national defense, foreign relations or economic interests. What is most problematic about the law, though, is “material support” has been interpreted so broadly. It is used regardless of whether the provider has the intent to support terrorism, or whether any specific act of terrorism has taken place or is being planned, and even to include pure speech and advocacy.

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