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Judge in NY tells hearing on lawsuit that 1st Amendment is not at heart of anti-terror law
NEW YORK (AP) ' A federal judge said Thursday that she's "extremely skeptical" a lawsuit can succeed in striking down a law giving the government wide powers to regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.
Judge Katherine Forrest opened a daylong hearing on the subject by saying legal precedents seemed to pave the way for the law to be found constitutional.
She also surprised lawyers who brought a lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of journalists, scholars and others by saying the First Amendment didn't seem to be central to the law.
Forrest said she didn't believe all speech is encumbered by the First Amendment. The government said in court papers that fears by those who brought the lawsuit were baseless.
Attorney Carl Mayer argued on behalf of the plaintiffs that the statute provides "no protection for journalists."
"This takes speech right out of the refrigerator, down to the basement and into deep freeze," he said. "It's draconian, a threat to journalists and lawyers."
Mayer noted that even President Barack Obama said he had serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Torrance said the plaintiffs "misread the statute and they misread the case law" in deciding to sue.
He said the law was aimed at anyone who directly supported al-Qaida or the Taliban.
The new law gives the president the authority to waive military custody, if it's in the interest of national security, for foreign terrorism suspects who are linked to al-Qaida or who are believed to be involved in plotting attacks against the U.S.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Harwood said the plaintiffs' fears were unfounded. He said the law codified exactly what the government has done since 9/11.
"Nothing has changed," he said. "This is doing nothing is new."
Another plaintiffs' lawyer, Bruce Afran, said he was surprised by what the judge said about the First Amendment as it relates to the law.
He said the area of speech outside First Amendment protection was very small.
The judge questioned some of the vague language of the law, including what is meant by the phrase "substantially supported" terrorism.
Journalist Christopher Hedges testified that the vagueness made it impossible for him to know what might be illegal.
"You're constantly second-guessing what or what not constitutes terrorist activity under this legislation because it's so amorphous," he said.