First of 194 Defendants in J20 Prosecution, Including Journalist, Found Not Guilty

Posted on December 28, 2017

A new piece from The Intercept reports that a jury in Washington DC has found the first six defendants in the federal prosecution of 194 Disrupt J20 protesters not guilty on all charges. The charges, which included an array of rioting infractions with a total maximum sentence of 50 years, were wholly rejected by the jury after the prosecution attempted to assert that the defendants willfully endorsed and affiliated with premeditated criminal rioters. 

The 194 defendants were arrested as part of a group of over 200 protesters contained and summarily arrested (or “kettled,” as it is referred to in law enforcement parlance) in a single city block occupied by protesters, a small subset of whom allegedly engaged in rioting. In its prosecution, the Department of Justice did not attempt to prove the individual criminal wrongdoing of any of the six defendants but, rather, their supposed complicity by associating with a protest which included some allegedly violent elements. However, the jury appears not to have been swayed by this line of reasoning, as it acquitted the six defendants on all charges. As Scott Michelman, staff attorney with ACLU’s DC chapter said, “Today’s verdict reaffirms two central constitutional principles of our democracy: first, that dissent is not a crime, and second, that our justice system does not permit guilt by association.”

As encouraging a development as the verdict is, it constitutes only a small victory in what will be a protracted and many-faceted legal battle set to play out for the remaining 188 defendants. The mere fact that the Justice Department, the highest prosecutorial body in the United States, even attempted to contend the validity of guilt by association in court is truly unsettling, as there is no guarantee that future juries in the J20 cases (or beyond) will interpret the government’s argument as judiciously the first jury did.

The prosecution also represents the latest in a recent, disturbing effort begun by state legislatures to criminalize the expression of political dissent. The characterization of all protesters participating in a demonstration involving violent acts by a few as endorsing such acts is a direct threat to the principle of free speech. To set such a precedent would not only produce a chilling effect on those considering political demonstration, but it would make it all too easy for law enforcement (or opposing civilian political groups) to plant undercover personnel to create a disturbance and thereby delegitimize the demonstration as a whole. This is not outside the realm of possibility, as not only have groups like Project Veritas attempted to discredit media by baiting them into including fabricated sources in their reporting, but the FBI has a long history of using informants to infiltrate heterodox political movements to monitor and disrupt them from within. 

With all of this in mind, the verdicts in the forthcoming J20 cases hold substantial implications for the future of First Amendment speech.

You can read the full piece from The Intercept here

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.