First Amendment Advocates Respond To Mehanna Verdict

By WGBH News & Wires

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Dec. 20, 2011

BOSTON — The conviction of a Massachusetts man on charges he conspired to help al-Qaida and plotted to kill US soldiers raises questions about freedom of speech in a lengthy war on terror.

Tarek Mehanna, of Sudbury, faced four terror-related charges and three charges of lying to authorities. On Dec. 20, a federal jury convicted him Tuesday of all counts.

Prosecutors said Mehanna and two friends conspired to go to Yemen so they could receive training at a terrorist camp with the intention of going on to Iraq to fight against U.S. soldiers there. When they couldn't find a camp, Mehanna returned home and began translating and distributing publications — to, prosecutors said, promote violent jihad.

The reasoning of the jurors is still unclear — including what the jurors made of Mehanna’s translations. Decades ago, the Supreme Court ruled that speech is protected unless there’s an imminent likelihood of inciting violence.
 
Following the verdict, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts issued a statement expressing its concern that the verdict undermined the First Amendment.
 
Are freedom of speech and national security compatible?
 
“They should be. In theory, they should be and they have been in the past,” attorney Harvey Silverglate said on “Greater Boston” on Dec. 20. He noted that though civil liberties have at times been constrained during past wars — take, for instance, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II — “when the war has ended, then we’ve gone back.” The danger now is that no one can see an end to the war on terror. Permanent war may mean a “permanent decrease in our civil liberties.”
 
Despite the end of the Iraq War, “the mood has been souring,” he said. In a similar case in Boise, Idaho in 2004, the jury brought in an acquittal.

The Idaho suspect was a Saudi citizen, Silverglate added. "Here we have an American citizen who's been convicted. We've come a long way, baby."
 

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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