A  Massachusetts man is to be sentenced Thursday in connection with multiple terrorism conspiracy convictions, according to CNN.

His prosecution raised several questions on how terror suspect may be properly prosecuted.

The crimes that 29-year-old Tarek Mehanna was convicted of back in December include:

  1. Conspiring to help al Qaeda,
  2. Conspiring to commit murder in a foreign country and
  3. Making false statements.

The convictions carry a maximum punishment of life in prison.

Prosecutors said that Mehanna traveled to Yemen to receive training where he learned techniques geared towards killing American soldiers and supporting terrorism within the United States.

Further, prosecutors said that Mehanna continued to support terrorist activity when he returned home by posting al Qaeda recruitment videos and other documents on the Internet.

However, Mehanna's lawyers say that by collecting and distributing jihadist propaganda he was merely exercising his constitutionally protected First Amendment right to free expression.

The decision in this case has been a rather contentious issue. It is hard for court's to draw the line of demarcation between when someone is exercising his First Amendment right to free speech/expression and when advocating or inciting criminal activity makes the incited crimes sufficiently likely to occur.

Thus legal experts have had debates concerning when the best time is for the government to take action against pre-criminal activity.

Back in the early half of the twentieth century the United States Supreme Court consistently upheld criminal convictions during the WWI as well as the Cold War for, among other things, circulating communist pamphlets, which the Court felt posed a "clear and present danger" at home.

Common in all of those cases was that the United States was at war, a time in which the Court has generally granted greater deference to the legislative and executive branches.

In the 1969 case, Brandenburg v.Ohio, the Court introduced the modern test for when the right to the freedom of expression may be intruded upon by the government when the expressed advocates criminal activity.

The Brandenburg Court said that "the constitutional guarantees of free speech and press do not permit a State to proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation EXCEPT where:

  1. Such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and
  2. Is likely to incite or produce such action."

In layman's terms a court must find that the criminal advocate is attempting to actually encourage crime and the crime is extremely likely to occur for a state to enter a pre-terror conviction.

Obviously, this is not an extremely clear test and, accordingly, courts have to grapple with the lack of clarity that comes with applying it, especially in complex factual situations such as here.

As a result, legal experts have questioned the implications of the case, debating the extent of free speech protection and how and when authorities can move against someone who is believed to be engaged "pre-terror" activity.

"Mr. Mehanna's efforts to use and support violence followed no predefined path and knew no bounds," said Richard DesLauriers, the special agent in charge of the Boston FBI in December. "The FBI fulfilled its most important mission by stopping Mehanna's conspiracy to support terrorism, the goal of which was an unlawful affront to our nation's cherished ideal of peaceful dissent."

Mehanna earned a doctorate at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, where his father was also a professor.

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