Princeton author and journalist Chris Hedges has won a major victory in his effort to protect civil liberties and constitutional rights, with a federal judge ruling in his favor yesterday and striking down clauses of the National Defense Authorization Act as unconstitutional.
A portion of the act that was signed by Obama at the end of last year grants the government the power to put U.S. citizens in military detention indefinitely and without any recourse in civil courts. Hedges and other journalists and activists, including Noam Chomsky, promptly challenged the law in a federal lawsuit. Hedges was represented by Princeton lawyers Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer.
The suit argued that the law, which allowed for the detention of anyone with “substantial supported ties” to al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other “associated forces” was so broad that it infringed on their own first-amendment rights as writers, activists and journalists. Hedges, for example, interviews people with ties to terrorist groups in the Middle East in his capacity as an investigative reporter.
U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Forrest said yesterday that Hedges and the other plaintiffs in the case had a reasonable fear that they could be subject to detention.
In her 112-page ruling, Forrest acknowledged the importance of the government’s efforts to safeguard the country from terrorism, but said the act is overly broad and vague. She said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits and law curtailing free speech, and that the Fifth Amendment requires that individuals understand what conduct could warrant to criminal or civil penalties.
The government argued that the issue is not the court’s business and that courts could consider individual habeas corpus petitions from prisoners who have been detained.
“That argument is without merit and, indeed, dangerous,” wrote Forrest, who is a recent Obama appointee to the court. “Habeas petitions (which take years to be resolved following initial detention) are reviewed under a `preponderance of the evidence’ standard (versus the criminal standard of `beyond a reasonable doubt’) by a single judge in a civil proceeding, not a jury of twelve citizens in a criminal proceeding which can only return a guilty verdict if unanimous.”
“If only habeas review is available to those detained…even U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, core constitutional rights available in criminal matters would simply be eliminated,” she wrote. “No court can accept this proposition and adhere truthfully to its oath.”
The government is expected to appeal the ruling, and Hedges had vowed to keep fighting if that happens.