SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The United States can designate foreign organizations as terrorist groups and bar Americans from financially backing them, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.
"Leaving the determination of whether a group is a ‘foreign terrorist organization’ to the executive branch … is both a reasonable and a constitutional way to make such determinations," Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote for a three-judge panel.
"The Constitution does not forbid Congress from requiring individuals, whether they agree with the executive branch determination or not, to refrain from furnishing material assistance to designated terrorist organizations."
The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was made in a case involving people who raised money in California for Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian opposition group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government since 1997.
The defendants argued the MEK was not a terrorist group and they had First Amendment rights to contribute to the group.
The court disagreed, saying contributing money was not the same as exercising a right to free speech. "Guns and bombs are not speech," Judge Kleinfeld wrote.
The 9th Circuit ruling was a rehearing of the same panel’s decision in June. Both 9th Circuit decisions overturned a district court’s dismissal of the indictment in the case.
The "Committee for Human Rights" had solicited contributions at the Los Angeles International Airport and sent them to the MEK in Turkey.
The Iranian group was formed in the 1960s to overthrow the Iranian government and was involved in taking U.S. Embassy staff in Tehran hostage in 1979. Its members, dissatisfied with the clerical government, later fled Iran, and resettled in Iraq, carrying out attacks with the backing of Saddam Hussein.
The ruling acknowledged geopolitical changes could change the perception about the MEK, but said the U.S. government should be the entity that decides.
"Defendants could be right about the MEK. But that is not for us, or for a jury in defendants’ case, to say," the decision read.
"The sometimes subtle analysis of a foreign organization’s political program to determine whether it is indeed a terrorist threat to the United States is particularly within the expertise of the State Department and the executive branch."