Ralph Fertig, an 80-year-old USC professor who has devoted much of his life to advancing civil rights causes, does not fit the profile of a terrorist.
But that is the charge Fertig, a professor of social welfare at USC’s School of Social Work, could be facing if he loses the recent appeal he argued in the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
Fertig is challenging the interpretation of an anti-terrorism law that prohibits advising terrorist groups. Since visiting Kurdistan, Turkey, in the 1980s and seeing the denial of human rights there, Fertig has been counseling Kurds on how to bring their case to the United Nations. Some of those he has advised, however, are suspected members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
Fertig said his intention was never to be a part of terrorism but to help PKK work toward a peaceful solution.
“The intent has to be to help a terrorist organization, and my intent is to help the Kurds,” Fertig said. “The advice I am giving is to observe peaceful and lawful resolution of the conflict.”
In 1998, Fertig filed for an injunction in the U.S. District Court of Los Angeles, looking for protection from the government for his work.
The federal government later appealed the injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but the panel upheld the injunction.
The law has been revised four times since, so Fertig has had to file four injunctions, each one appealed by the federal government.
In the most recent instance, the federal government appealed to the Supreme Court to have the injunction voided, saying it violated new provisions of the Patriot Act, which makes it illegal to give service, expert advice, personnel and training to groups classified as terrorist organizations.
It is that recent appeal, though, that led Fertig and the Humanitarian Law Project, a group that Fertig heads, to the Supreme Court last week.
“I have a deep and abiding belief in the right to free speech,” Fertig said. “The Kurds are being oppressed in Turkey, and this is an effort to silence me. Politically, our country is doing this to silence me and others who speak out against this because we want to be friends with Turkey.”
It is not the first time Fertig has fought for free speech and human rights.
Born to German immigrants and raised in Chicago, Fertig said working to advance civil rights was his natural calling, as he was exposed to many forms of discrimination early on in his life. His family’s home became a refuge for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution during World War II.
“I grew up learning about the atrocities that Hitler was committing against the Jews, and I swore I would devote my life to preventing such atrocities,” he said.
While earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago, he became vice president for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
After graduating in 1950, he earned his master’s at Columbia University in 1952 and his doctorate in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1955.
Fertig participated in the Freedom Riders Movement of 1961, an experience that almost cost him his life when he was taken off the bus in Selma, Ala. and jailed.
“They broke every rib in my body, and they were going to lynch me, but I was rescued by three black lawyers and the FBI,” Fertig said.
A close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Fertig worked with him in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and participated in the famous march on Washington, D.C. of 1963. Along with King Jr., he cites Paul Robeson as a major inspiration.
Fertig’s professional career consists of 25 years of working as a civil rights attorney, mostly in private practice in Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and six years of working as a federal district judge.
“What we like about [Fertig] is that he is willing to take this personal risk to advance the things he believes in,” said Marilyn Flynn, dean of the School of Social Work. “He is certainly one of the most committed people that I know to human rights both in his personal life and his professional life.”
Locally, Fertig has advocated for the rights of homeless children in Los Angeles.
He presented legislation during a special hearing in Los Angeles last year to help pass a bill that would put homeless children in subsidized housing with their parents rather than in foster homes.
Fertig has worked with his students on the issue of homelessness, believing his students should be involved in framing policy.
Recently, a group of his students made a documentary about homelessness on skid row and presented it in various venues to help gain support for the bill.
Students involved in the project said Fertig’s stories of his fights for human rights helped motivate them and convinced them they could effect change.
“There are a lot of situations where it seemed like nothing could be done about a problem, [but] sharing these stories creates an environment in the classroom that we can go out there and make changes even if they seem impossible,” said Erin Dowler, one of the students who worked on the bill.
Fertig is now back in Los Angeles, awaiting a ruling on his Supreme Court appeal.
If the appeal fails and Fertig is charged and convicted, he could face up to 15 years in jail. Yet he is unfazed and committed to standing up for the oppressed and expressing his first-amendment right.
“My intention is to continue to provide free-speech advice to the Kurds to bring their cause to the U.N., and, if the government says that makes me a criminal, then they have to charge me, convict me and put me in jail.”