Citing a threat to journalists and scholars, a judge on Wednesday struck down as unconstitutional a portion of a law giving the government wide powers to regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan said in a written ruling that a single page of the law has a “chilling impact on First Amendment rights” for journalists and others. She cited testimony by journalists that they feared their association with certain individuals overseas could result in their arrest because a provision of the law subjects anyone who “substantially” or “directly” provides “support” to forces such as al-Qaida or the Taliban can be detained indefinitely. She said the wording was too vague and encouraged Congress to change it.
“An individual could run the risk of substantially supporting or directly supporting an associated force without even being aware that he or she was doing so,” the judge said.
She called the fears of journalists in particular real and reasonable.
The ruling came in a lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of journalists, scholars and others. Forrest cited the vague nature of the law as it pertains to journalists and the government’s inability to provide assurances that the specific conduct at issue would not subject plaintiffs to prosecution and detention.
The National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law in December, allowing for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism.
The lawsuit was filed two weeks later by a group of writers and activists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges, who testified that the vagueness of the law left him “constantly second-guessing what or what not constitutes terrorist activity under this legislation because it’s so amorphous.”
A message left Wednesday with a spokeswoman for federal prosecutors was not immediately returned.
Bruce Afran, a lawyer for seven individuals and one organization that brought the lawsuit, called the ruling a “great victory for free speech.”