‘Material support’ and the case of Tarek Mehanna

Tarek Mehanna
Tarek Mehanna

In today’s Boston Globe, civil-liberties lawyer and friend of Media Nation Harvey Silverglate explains in chilling detail the constitutional underpinnings — or, rather, the absence of such underpinnings — in the 2012 conviction of Al Qaeda sympathizer Tarek Mehanna.

Mehanna’s conviction on charges related almost entirely to his labors as a propagandist and translator led to the first of two Muzzle Awards for U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. (The second was for her unconscionable crusade against the young Internet visionary Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while facing prison for downloading academic articles without permission.)

Silverglate and his associate Juliana DeVries write in the Globe that the First Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld Mehanna’s conviction and 17-year prison term on the basis of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. That decision, Silverglate and DeVries write, “allows federal prosecutors to bring charges for a wide range of expressive activities that supposedly constitute ‘material support’ to terrorists.”

Such a standard would appear to fly in the face of rulings such as the landmark Brandenburg v. Ohio decision of 1969, in which it was held that even vile, hateful calls to violence (the case involved the Ku Klux Klan) were constitutionally protected unless they were likely to result in an immediate conflagration. Silverglate and DeVries put it this way:

With the Humanitarian Law Project decision, the civic life of our free nation took a radical, though under-appreciated, turn for the worse. “Material support” is now a top contender for the American equivalent of the Soviet (now Russian) “hooliganism” statute, a notoriously vague criminal law that enabled the imprisonment of any opponent of dictator Josef Stalin’s regime…. A “material support” charge is a product not of our nation’s legitimate anti-terror concern, but of its overreaction and paranoia.

The Mehanna case was not entirely clear-cut from a legal point of view. He was also convicted of seeking (unsuccessfully) to join Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen and of lying to the FBI. But Ortiz went out of her way to prosecute Mehanna for his expressive activities, and his loathsome rhetoric was given an ample airing before the jury.

Mehanna is no mere Sudbury pharmacist, as his supporters would have you believe. But it is a fact that he is serving a prison term today because he expressed what he was thinking — an activity that is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment under nearly all circumstances.

Several years ago the late Anthony Lewis wrote a wonderful primer on the First Amendment called “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.” Sadly, that freedom is becoming more and more a part of the past.

Booking photo of Mehanna in 2009 from the Sudbury Police as published at Boston.com.

Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice

Aaron Swartz in January 2012. Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski. For details, click on image.
Aaron Swartz in January 2012

An earlier version of this commentary was published on Sunday at The Huffington Post.

The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has prompted a wave of revulsion directed at U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who was seeking to put him in prison for 35 years on charges that he illegally downloaded millions of academic articles.

Swartz, 26, who helped develop the RSS standard and was a co-founder of Reddit, was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying,” wrote his friend and lawyer Lawrence Lessig. “I get wrong,” Lessig added. “But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”

By Monday morning, more than 11,000 people had signed an online petition asking President Obama to remove Ortiz. Swartz’s family released a statement that said in part: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

Ortiz’s vindictiveness toward Swartz may have seemed shocking given that even the victim of Swartz’s alleged offense — the academic publisher JSTOR — did not wish to press charges. But it was no surprise to those of us who have been observing Ortiz’s official conduct as the top federal prosecutor in Boston.

Last July I singled out Ortiz as the lead villain in the 2012 Muzzle Awards, an annual feature I’ve been writing for the Phoenix newspapers of Boston, Providence and Portland since 1998. The reason: her prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, a Boston-area pharmacist who had acted as a propagandist for Al Qaeda.

Mehanna was sentenced to prison for 17 years — not because of what he did, but because of what he said, wrote and translated. Though Mehanna had once unsuccessfully sought training at a jihadi terrorist camp in Yemen, the government’s case was based almost entirely on activities that were, or should have been, protected by the First Amendment.

Make no mistake: Mehanna’s propaganda was “brutal, disgusting and unambiguously supportive of Islamic insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,” Yale political scientist Andrew March wrote in The New York Times. But as March, the ACLU and others pointed out in defense of Mehanna, the more loathsome the speech, the more it deserves protection under the Constitution.

In addition to the prosecution of Tarek Mehanna and the persecution of Aaron Swartz, there is the matter of Sal DiMasi, a former speaker of the Massachusetts House who is now serving time in federal prison on political corruption charges brought by Ortiz.

Last June DiMasi revealed he had advanced tongue cancer — and he accused federal prison authorities of ignoring his pleas for medical care while he was shuttled back and forth to Boston so that he could be questioned about a patronage scandal Ortiz’s office was investigating. It would be a stretch to connect Ortiz directly with DiMasi’s health woes. She is, nevertheless, a key player in a system that could transform DiMasi’s prison sentence into a death sentence.

Notwithstanding the anger that has been unleashed at Ortiz following Aaron Swartz’s death, she should not be regarded as an anomaly. As the noted civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in his 2009 book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” federal prosecutors have been given vague, broad powers that have led to outrages against justice across the country.

“Wrongful prosecution of innocent conduct that is twisted into a felony charge has wrecked many an innocent life and career,” wrote Silverglate, a friend and occasional collaborator. “Whole families have been devastated, as have myriad relationships and entire companies.”

Ortiz may now find that her willingness to use those vast powers against Swartz could have a harmful effect on her future.

As a Latina and as a tough law-and-order Democrat, she has been seen as a hot political property in Massachusetts. In 2011 The Boston Globe Magazine named her its “Bostonian of the Year.” She recently told the Boston Herald she was not interested in running for either the U.S. Senate or governor. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be persuaded. Now, though, she may be regarded as damaged goods.

Those who are mourning the death of Aaron Swartz should keep in mind that he had long struggled with depression. Blaming his suicide on Carmen Ortiz is unfair.

Nevertheless, the case she was pursuing against Swartz was wildly disproportionate, and illustrated much that is wrong with our system of justice. Nothing good can come from his death. But at the very least it should prompt consideration of why such brutality has become a routine part of the American system of justice.

Update: MIT, where Swartz allegedly downloaded the JSTOR articles, has announced an internal investigation, reports Evan Allen of The Boston Globe. Lauren Landry of BostInno has statements from MIT president Rafael Reif and from JSTOR.

Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski via Wikimedia Commons and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Mehanna verdict: Speech, actions or both?

Was Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury found guilty because of his loathsome but constitutionally protected free-speech activities on behalf of Al Qaeda? Or did the jury believe he actually engaged in terrorism, especially during a trip to Yemen, where prosecutors say he sought training?

I hope reporters covering the case will seek to interview every juror, because the answer is vitally important. Right now it’s hard to know whether the verdict was an outrage against the First Amendment or something quite a bit less than that. In following coverage of the trial, it was clear that prosecutors tried to conflate the two — using Mehanna’s expression of pro-terrorism views to prove he was an actual terrorist.

Boston Globe reporter Milton Valencia tweeted a little while ago, “Judging by verdict, this was more than 1st Amendment decision. Was also centered on Yemen trip. Found guilty of conspiracy to kill.”

Talking up terrorism and the right to free speech

It was Peter Gelzinis’ column in today’s Boston Herald that got me thinking about the case of Tarek Mehanna, the Sudbury man on trial for terrorism-related charges in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Mehanna’s lawyer, J.W. Carney, argues that Mehanna’s activities have been limited to advocacy on behalf of Al Qaeda, which is protected by the First Amendment. But prosecutors, as Milton Valencia reports in today’s Boston Globe, have been suggesting that Mehanna is guilty of actual terrorist activities, including traveling to Yemen to receive training.

So I sat up and took notice when I saw this quote in Gelzinis’ column, in which federal prosecutor Aloke Chakravarty tells the jury that Mehanna had translated documents such as “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” into English. “Simply agreeing to do that is a crime in this country,” Chakravarty said.

Well, it may be a crime, but if it is, the law under which Mehanna has been charged is almost certainly unconstitutional. Essentially, Mehanna is being charged with incitement to violence, a category of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment, and can thus be prosecuted. But the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that speech cannot be considered incitement unless it presents a genuine threat of immediate harm — a right-here, right-now standard that does not apply to general calls for violence.

In 1969, the court ruled that a Ku Klux Klan leader named Clarence Brandenburg could not be prosecuted for calling for “revengeance” (no, not a word, but Klan leaders tend not to be too brite) against Jews and African-Americans, ruling in Brandenburg v. Ohio:

Freedoms of speech and press do not permit a State to forbid advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

Eight years later, the courts overturned efforts by officials in Skokie, Ill., aimed at preventing a neo-Nazi group from marching through the streets of their community. The Supreme Court, having spoken in the Brandenburg case, declined to get involved.

To the extent that Mehanna’s alleged crimes amount to pure advocacy, even of violence against the government and of terrorism, his speech is protected by the First Amendment. As Carney says, “We can hold onto these views, and we can speak them, even if it’s what upsets the United States government. It’s what makes the United States so great, so strong, and so free.”

I find it shocking that Chakravarty read to the jury an ode Mehanna allegedly wrote to commemorate the terrorist attacks of 9/11. If that isn’t protected speech, well, I don’t know what is. It’s the speech we find most loathsome that is in the greatest need of protection. Keep that in mind as this case moves forward.