Ralph David Fertig was born to German immigrant parents in 1930 and was raised in Chicago. He received a B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1950, an M.A. from Columbia University in 1952, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago in 1955. While earning his bachelor’s degree, Fertig formed a student branch of the NAACP. He subsequently became a member of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and viewed Paul Robeson as one of his heroes.
During the 1960s, Fertig was part of the Freedom Rider movement protesting Jim Crow laws in the American South. While engaged in these activities in Alabama on one occasion, he was jailed for “disturbing the peace.” Fertig went on to earn a J.D. from UCLA Law School in 1979 and eventually became a civil-rights attorney and an administrative law judge. He is best known, however, as the longtime president of the Humanitarian Law Project (HLP).
Fertig strongly objected to the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, a PATRIOT Act precursor, which made it a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison to provide “financial and material support” to any foreign organization designated as a terrorist group by the Secretary of State.
In 1998 Fertig was a lead plaintiff in Humanitarian Law Project et al. v. Reno et al. — a federal court case that was brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) — where HLP tried to protect Americans’ right to provide legal counsel, if they wished, to the Sri Lanka-based Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Both of these separatist, Marxist entities had been formally designated as foreign terrorist organizations, and their actions had theretofore led to more than 100,000 deaths during the preceding two decades. Notwithstanding this bloody track record, Fertig and his fellow plaintiffs maintained that with a proper blend of persuasion, education, and legal counsel, PKK in particular could be convinced to renounce its violent tactics and to work, instead, within the framework of “various representative bodies such as the United Nations for relief.” By Fertig’s reckoning, the ban against giving aid to PKK and other terrorist groups was “more dangerous than McCarthyism” had ever been.
HLP v. Reno dragged on for several years. In making its case, HLP claimed that the “expert advice” it provided to the terrorists was in the area of “international law and the art of peace-making and negotiation,” and that its free speech in these areas would be infringed by the Patriot Act. The government’s lawyer countered that advice in these areas “was not even arguably expert.”
Acting as lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the HLP case was Georgetown law professor (and former CCR staff attorney) David Cole, who argued: (a) that the provisions of the anti-terrorism law “do not require proof that an individual intended to further terrorist activity, and (b) that the law, therefore, imposes guilt by association, rather than on the basis of one’s acts.” Moreover, the CCC lawyers contended that the designation of groups as “terrorist” was itself unconstitutional—a position maintained by the legal left generally. But in January 2004 in Los Angeles, Judge Audrey Collins ruled against the plaintiffs, affirming that such governmental designations were in fact valid.
In 2001 Fertig was a signatory to a letter condemning Great Britain’s recently enacted Terrorism Act of 2000. Asserting that the new statute “represent[s] a serious threat to civil liberties in this country and tarnishes Britain’s tradition of providing a haven for those seeking refuge from repressive regimes overseas,” the letter objected to the British government’s designation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization. “For the British government to proscribe the PKK at this present time,” added the letter, “can only indicate a wilful [sic] blindness as to the nature of the party, which has long been pursuing a peaceful policy…” Other signers of the appeal included Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Noam Chomsky, and the Socialist Alliance.
Fertig was a supporter of World Can’t Wait (WCW), a Revolutionary Communist Party front group that sought to organize “people living in the United States to take responsibility to stop the whole disastrous course led by the [George W.] Bush administration.” On September 20, 2006, Fertig lent his name to a WCW ad in The New York Times promoting an upcoming rally against “the Bush regime” and its: (a) pursuit of “endless wars,” (b) routine use of “torture,” (c) indifference to the victims of Hurricane Katrina (in 2005), and (d) quest to transform the United States into a Christian “theocracy.”
In 2008, Fertig donated money to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. That April, Fertig was in contention to become a delegate for Obama in California’s 30th Congressional District, but ultimately he was not selected.
In addition to his work with HLP, Fertig at various times has also served as a supporting member of the Campaign Against Criminalizing Communities; vice president of the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action; an executive board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance; an executive board member of Peace Now; and a clinical associate professor of Social Welfare in the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work.
Fertid died on March 28, 2019 in Westwood, California.
For additional information on Ralph Fertig, click here.
Further Reading: “Activist’s Case Will Test U.S. Anti-Terrorism Law” (Los Angeles Times, 2-18-2010); “USC Professor Defends Freedom of Speech Rights” (Daily Trojan, 3-9-2010); “The Making of a Freedom Rider” (by Ralph Fertig, 2011); “Humanitarian Law Project” (by Jean Pearce, 4-14-2004); “Abetting Terrorism = ‘Free Speech’?” (by John Perazzo, 6-28-2010); “Unholy Alliance: How the Left Supports the Terrorists at Home” (by David Horowitz, 9-24-2004); “Obama Roommate … Loses Bid To Become Obama Delegate” (Huffington Post, 4-24-2008); “Ralph Fertig” (ORL.usc.edu).