A federal judge has ruled against a highly controversial provision of the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by President Barack Obama that authorizes the indefinite military detention of Americans without charge or trial.
In her 112-page ruling, Judge Katherine B. Forrest of the US District Court for Southern New York called the indefinite detention provision "facially unconstitutional" and said it "impermissibly impinges upon guaranteed First Amendment rights and lacks sufficient definitional structure and protections to meet the requirements of due process."
Forrest, an Obama appointee, had already issued a preliminary injunction against the provision in May, blocking the government from using the law to indefinitely detain anyone without trial. Wednesday's ruling made that injunction permanent.
Both houses of Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which contains provisions allowing the government to detain indefinitely individuals suspected of "substantially supporting" al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other terrorists organizations. The law, which does not say exactly what behavior could lead to indefinite detention, was quietly signed by President Barack Obama with "serious reservations" on New Year's Eve.
The law was challenged by Chris Hedges, a veteran investigative journalist who sometimes interviews terrorists as part of his work. Among his six co-plaintiffs were renowned linguist, author and activist Noam Chomsky, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, and supporters of the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks. The plaintiffs argued that the law had a chilling effect on their constitutional rights because it stoked fear that they would be indefinitely detained for doing their jobs.
Judge Forrest concurred in the May preliminary injunction. The Obama administration fought back, denying that the law applied to free speech activities. The government also asserted that the controversial provisions of the NDAA did not expand its power and that the Authorization for Use of Military Force approved by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks already granted it the power to indefinitely detain individuals.
Bruce Afran, a law professor at Rutgers University, told the New York Times that Judge Forrest's ruling was an "historic" rejection of government intrusion on constitutional rights.
"It's an absolute guarantee of freedom of political debate even in a time of war," he said.