WASHINGTON—The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today filed a lawsuit challenging the assertion by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) that it can restrict American groups from organizing political discussions that include people whom the government has sanctioned. The complaint, filed on behalf of the Foundation for Global Political Exchange, argues that OFAC’s position exceeds its statutory and regulatory authority and violates the First Amendment.

“Preventing an American organization from including disfavored speakers in political dialogue is a dangerous overreach by the government with enormous consequences for the global exchange of ideas,” said Alex Abdo, litigation director of the Knight First Amendment Institute. “Americans have a right to engage with people and ideas from around the world, and the First Amendment protects their right to do so even when the government objects.”

The Foundation for Global Political Exchange promotes professional and academic enrichment through convenings in the Middle East and North Africa called “Exchanges.” Each Exchange involves a series of small-group, immersive dialogues that allows participants from around the world to engage with and question key decision-makers from across the country’s political spectrum. Since 2008, more than 1,500 people have attended Exchanges, including journalists, academics, students, NGO practitioners, and government officials from 51 different countries. 

The Foundation convened the 21st Beirut Exchange in January 2023, where 15 participants from around the world gathered to engage with about 35 prominent figures in Lebanon. In advance of that Exchange, the Foundation informed OFAC that it intended to include five Lebanese political figures—some of whom are members of Lebanon’s parliament—who are designated under a U.S. sanctions regime or members of a designated organization. Interpreting its authority broadly, OFAC prohibited the Foundation from including the speakers. 

“We invited these prominent political figures to the 2023 Beirut Exchange because they are vital to understanding Lebanon’s complicated political landscape and its role in global affairs,” said Nicholas Noe, director and co-founder of the Foundation for Global Political Exchange. “Hearing from key decision-makers across the ideological spectrum is critical to finding pathways toward a sustainable peace.”

Today’s complaint argues that OFAC’s decision to block the Foundation from including designated speakers in its Exchanges exceeds OFAC’s authority and violates the First Amendment by suppressing core political speech. If OFAC’s interpretation of its regulatory authority holds, it could have enormous consequences for public discourse. Under the agency’s interpretation, major media organizations would also be prohibited from publishing interviews with influential figures who are designated under U.S. sanctions law—which media organizations currently do routinely, particularly in their coverage of conflict regions. 

“The government can’t be allowed to dictate which voices Americans are permitted to hear from on issues of global politics,” said Anna Diakun, staff attorney at the Knight Institute. “The First Amendment was meant to keep this kind of authority out of the government’s hands.” 

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that OFAC’s actions are unlawful and to prohibit the agency from preventing the Foundation from hosting discussions with speakers of its choosing in the future.

Read today’s complaint here.

Lawyers on the case include Abdo, Diakun, Jameel Jaffer, Alexia Ramirez, and Xiangnong Wang for the Knight First Amendment Institute, and Joshua Andresen for the Foundation for Global Political Exchange.

For more information, contact: Lorraine Kenny, [email protected]