On Friday, the US Department of State decided to drop the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) from its list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTO). The MEK has been the focus of intensive lobbying for removal from the list for several years and has been vocally supported by a number of prominent politicians, including US Senators and Representatives, as well as former administration officials.
Not limited to one party, supporters of the MEK range from Rudolph Guliani to Howard Dean. The terrorist status of the group has proved an uncomfortable situation for many of these politicians, who may have committed material support of terrorism by accepting fees and travel reimbursements to speak at rallies on behalf of the MEK when it was designated as a terrorist organization.
Under the interpretation of laws prohibiting material support to terrorism, expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act and upheld by the Supreme Court in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (2010), it is illegal for a person to provide "expert advice or assistance," humanitarian aid, or even to advocate lawful non-violent activity, if it is coordinated with a group on the FTO list.
The severe ramifications of this law have resulted in solitary confinement and a fifteen year sentence for US citizen Fahad Hashmi, who allowed a suitcase of raincoats at his apartment, and a 17 year sentence for Tarek Mehanna, who translated a text by a Saudi religious scholar. The removal of the MEK from the FTO list demonstrates not only the double-standard for enforcement of material support laws, but also the over-broad and heavy-handed criminalization of constitutionally protected activity.
When the overbroad law resulted in investigations of prominent politicians and former officials, the law was not modified to address First Amendment concerns, but instead maintained, while a specific organization was removed from the terrorist list to accommodate those politicians' activities. The material support law should be changed so that it doesn't criminalize association, expression, or other activity protected by the First Amendment, or efforts aimed to advance humanitarian goals.