So what does Humanitarian Law Project say about the degree of deference to be paid to the political branches in deciding whether the law prohibiting material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations can be applied to speech?
Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion for the Court does not begin by invoking deference. Instead, at pages 24-28, he examines in some details the reasons why, in his judgment, the statute’s view that at least some forms of speech amount to material support is correct. One can disagree with his analysis, but as presented it is indeed his (and the majority’s) analysis. It’s of some importance, I think, that Justice Roberts begins this way.
His next step, however, is to explain why “we do not rely exclusively on our own inferences drawn from the record evidence. We have before us an affidavit stating the Executive Branch’s conclusion on that question,” a conclusion “‘strongly suppor[ting]’ Congress’s findings that all contributions [including nonmonetary contributions] to foreign terrorist organizations further their terrorism…. That evaluation of the facts by the Executive, like Congress’s assessment, is entitled to deference.” (28-29)
But it is important to emphasize that Chief Justice Roberts does not assert that complete deference is called for. “It is vital in this context ‘not to substitute … our own evaluation of evidence for a reasonable evaluation by the Legislative Branch,’” he writes, quoting an earlier decision. Deference is owed not to any evaluation, but to reasonable ones. Roberts writes that “[w]e are one with the dissent that the Government’s ‘authority and expertise in these matters do not automatically trump the Court’s own obligation to secure the protection that the Constitution grants to individuals.’” (29) And later he declares that, “At bottom, plaintiffs simply disagree with the considered judgment of Congress and the Executive that providing material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization – even seemingly benign support – bolsters the terrorist activities of that organization. That judgment, however, is entitled to significant weight, and we have persuasive evidence before us to sustain it.” (31) This too is the language of measured rather than complete deference.
What, concretely, does all this mean? For Chief Justice Roberts, an important part of the answer seems to be “that national security and foreign policy concerns arise in connection with efforts to confront evolving threats in an area where information can be difficult to obtain and the impact of certain conduct difficult to assess. The dissent slights these real constraints in demanding hard proof – with ‘detail,’ ‘specific facts,’ and ‘specific evidence’ – that plaintiffs’ proposed activities will support terrorist attacks.” (29) Here, I think, we are at the crux of the matter: the government’s judgments emphasize potential risks not specifically demonstrated, and the question is what to do about these possibilities.
This is the problem of the one-percent doctrine (though I am not saying that the Supreme Court majority embraced that extreme idea): what should we do when we’re not sure? The one-percent doctrine stated that we would treat essentially every risk as equivalent to certainty. As I’ve written in a previous post, that idea didn’t really make sense even in command decisionmaking. Nor would it make sense in law, where a great deal of effort has gone into trying to fashion standards for decisions about the meaning of uncertain evidence.
Broadly speaking, the First Amendment response to uncertainty has been that when we regulate speech because of its content we must have strong reason to believe that the regulation is called for. The majority here makes clear that it considers the material support statute, as applied to speech, to be a regulation based on content, because not all speech is prohibited, only that speech to terrorist groups “that imparts a ‘specific skill’ or communicates advice derived from ‘specialized knowledge’ (22).
But what if the “speech” in question is actually expressed via conduct – such as the speech involved in burning one’s draft card? A 1960s case about draft-card burning approved a less-demanding standard of review than “pure speech” cases require. Here, the majority rejects the plaintiffs’ argument that the statute regulates “pure political speech” – on the ground that completely pure speech, speech uttered independently of any terrorist organization, is not subject to the statute (20). But even if we think of speech that provides material support to terrorist organizations as “conduct” of a sort, the majority emphasizes that “the conduct triggering coverage under the statute consists of communicating a message.” (23) On that basis, the Court appears to conclude that “‘we must [apply] a more demanding standard” of scrutiny – though the Court never actually specifies what that standard is. Justice Breyer in dissent spends some time on the question of just how demanding a standard should be employed, but ultimately concludes that “I doubt that the statute, as the Government would interpret it, can survive any reasonably applicable First Amendment standard.” (Dissent at 6-7)
We are dealing, then, with a heightened-scrutiny context – in other words, one where the benefit of the doubt must be given to the speaker. It appears that the Supreme Court is unanimous on this score. (A partial qualification: the Court notes an argument by the government that “speech coordinated with foreign terrorist organizations” is like “speech effecting a crime, like the words that constitute a conspiracy.” 22 n.5. This argument could mean that such speech “triggers no First Amendment scrutiny at all.” Justice Breyer, in dissent, emphatically declares that “[n]ot even the ‘serious and deadly problem’ of international terrorism can require automatic forfeiture of First Amendment rights.” (Dissent at 5.) The Court doesn’t express any attraction for the Government’s proposition, but also does not reject it on the merits; it declines to “consider any such argument because the Government does not develop it.” Id.)
But how much benefit, of how much doubt? In my next post on this case, I’ll take up the dissent’s answer to this question.