Court in Civil Case Holds Trump’s Jan. 6 Speech Could Be Constitutionally Unprotected Incitement
In Thompson v. Trump, various plaintiffs are suing President Trump, Donald J. Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani, and others for injuries (physical or emotional) caused to them in the Capitol as a result of the January 6 riot. The core claims are brought under the federal statute banning conspiracy “to prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat, any person from accepting or holding any office, trust, or place of confidence under the United States, or from discharging any duties thereof.”
Today, Judge Amit Mehta concluded that there was sufficient evidence that President Trump participated in such a conspiracy, and that his January 6 speech wasn’t protected by the First Amendment against civil liability for such conspiracy, because it fit within the “incitement” exception recognized in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969): Speech is unprotected if it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” (The court doesn’t discuss any criminal prosecution questions, but in a criminal case the elements of incitement would presumably have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt; in a civil case, preponderance of the evidence likely suffices.)
Here is the heart of the Court’s incitement analysis (there’s of course much more in the opinion, which is 112 pages long, about various other aspects of the case), followed by some reactions on my part:
The President’s words on January 6th did not explicitly encourage the imminent use of violence or lawless action, but that is not dispositive. In Hess v. Indiana (1973), the Supreme Court recognized that words can implicitly encourage violence or lawlessness. In reversing Hess’s conviction, the Court held that there was “no evidence or rational inference from the import of the language” intended to produce, or likely to produce, imminent disorder. By considering the “import of the language,” and the “rational inferences” the words produce, the Court signaled that there is no safe haven under Brandenburg for the strategic speaker who does not directly and unequivocally advocate for imminent violence or lawlessness, but does so through unmistakable suggestion and persuasion….
Having considered the President’s January 6 Rally Speech in its entirety and in context, the court concludes that the President’s statements that, “[W]e fight. We fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” and “[W]e’re going to try to and give [weak Republicans] the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country,” immediately before exhorting rally-goers to “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” are plausibly words of incitement not protected by the First Amendment. It is plausible that those words were implicitly “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and [were] likely to produce such action.”
The “import” of the President’s words must be viewed within the broader context in which the Speech was made and against the Speech as a whole. Before January 6th, the President and others had created an air of distrust and anger among his supporters by creating the false narrative that the election literally was stolen from underneath their preferred candidate by fraud and corruption. Some of his supporters’ beliefs turned to action. In the weeks after the election, some had made threats against state election officials and others clashed with police in Washington, D.C., following pro-Trump rallies. The President would have known about these events, as they were widely publicized. Against this backdrop, the President invited his followers to Washington, D.C., on January 6th. It is reasonable to infer that the Presiden
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