For the first time, a federal judge has declared unconstitutional a section of the USA Patriot Act that bars giving expert advice or assistance to groups designated foreign terrorist organizations.
In a ruling handed down late Friday and made available Monday, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins said the ban is impermissibly vague in its wording.
The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing the ruling, spokesman Mark Corallo said in Washington.
Corallo called the Patriot Act _ the federal antiterrorism statute passed in the aftermath of Sept. 11 _ "an essential tool in the war on terror" and said the portion at issue in the ruling was only a modest amendment to existing antiterrorism law.
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who argued the case on behalf of the Humanitarian Law Project, declared the ruling "a victory for everyone who believes the war on terrorism ought to be fought consistent with constitutional principles."
"It is the first federal court decision declaring any part of the Patriot Act unconstitutional," he said.
The ruling might have implications in the case of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, who faces federal racketeering charges in Tampa.
Al-Arian and three other men were arrested in February on charges they supported, promoted and raised money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the U.S. government declared a terrorist group.
Last week, Al-Arian's lawyers argued that their client has a right to freely support political organizations, whether that be through making speeches or raising money. His lawyers have also said they will attack the constitutionality of the Patriot Act in court filings.
The case before the court in California involved five groups and two U.S. citizens seeking to provide support for lawful, nonviolent activities on behalf of Kurdish refugees in Turkey.
The Humanitarian Law Project said the plaintiffs were threatened with 15 years in prison if they advised groups on seeking a peaceful resolution of the Kurds' campaign for self-determination in Turkey.
The judge's ruling said the law, as written, does not differentiate between impermissible advice on violence and encouraging the use of peaceful means to achieve goals.
"The USA Patriot Act . . . bans the provision of all expert advice and assistance regardless of its nature," the judge said.
The ruling specified that the plaintiffs seek to provide support to "the lawful, nonviolent activities" of the Kurdistan Workers' Party and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an advocate group for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Both groups are on a list issued by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 1997 of "foreign terrorist organizations."
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tiger rebels have been engaged in a two-decade civil war that has killed more than 65,000 people. Turkey's military has been battling Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy since 1984, a fight that has left some 37,000 people dead.
Under the Patriot Act, the U.S. prohibition on providing "material support" or "resources" to terrorist groups was expanded to include "expert advice or assistance."
_ Times staff writer Graham Brink contributed to this report.