Court Upholds State Department Order Closing Washington PLO Office

The State Department was acting within its legal rights when it ordered the closing of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s information office here, a U.S. District Court judge ruled Wednesday.

Judge Charles Richey said the claim by the Palestine Information Office and its director, Hasan Abdel Rahman, that the order violated the group’s constitutional rights, including that of freedom of speech, was “utterly meritless.”

Richey’s ruling rejects a request by the American Civil Liberties Union for an injunction against the State Department order, which was issued Sept. 15.

The office must now close by midnight Thursday, although the ACLU plans to make another attempt for an injunction, this time before the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The move was immediately hailed by the American Jewish Congress, which had filed a brief in support of the government with the district court. This was the first time AJCongress had been on the opposite side of the ACLU in a lawsuit.

DOES NOT INFRINGE ON RIGHTS

The district court order “confirms that the closing of the PLO office in Washington in no way infringes on the protected rights of Americans or forecloses or even narrows debate on the Mideast policy,” said Phil Baum, associate executive director of AJCongress.

“Americans remain free to consider or advocate any issue, including the claims of the Palestinians, without penalty or impediment,” Baum said.

He said the State Department decision was an “expression of our country’s resolve to go beyond preachment and rhetoric in the fight against terrorism. The action by the State Department effectively declares that all ideas are welcome in this country, but the operating centers of terrorist agencies will not be tolerated.”

The court decision also was applauded by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.

The State Department order came in the wake of strong pressure from Congress to close both the information office here and the PLO’s observer mission at the United Nations in New York. The department said it could close the Washington office, which it considered a foreign mission, but not the U.N. office, because of treaties with the United Nations.

‘CONCERN OVER TERRORISM’

In announcing the order to close the office, the State Department stressed that “the action is being taken to demonstrate United States concern over terrorism committed and supported by organizations and individuals affiliated with the PLO.”

The department stressed that the order does not violate the First Amendment protection of speech, since Rahman and other employees of the Palestine Information Office, all American citizens, are free to continue advocating their cause. This argument was reiterated by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Reich in district court.

But Steven Shapiro, the ACLU lawyer who represented the office, claimed that Rahman was being denied his right to advocate the Palestinian cause.

He also argued that the information office was not an arm of the PLO, but acted as a foreign agent for it, as do many other American groups for foreign countries. However, he conceded that the PLO provided the $350,000 annual expenses for the office, while Rahman’s salary was paid for by the Arab League.

The State Department originally ordered the office to close by Oct. 15, but then granted an extension to Dec. 1. Richey extended the stay until Thursday to give him time to study the various briefs after he was brought into the case suddenly last Friday when the original judge, Stanley Sporkin, withdrew.

Shapiro challenged Sporkin’s right to hear the case since he may have received information on the PLO when he was general counsel for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The district court decision may increase congressional action to have the PLO’s New York office closed too.

A Senate-House conference committee is considering the State Department budget authorization bill, which includes a provision requiring both the Washington and New York offices to be closed.

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