Proud Boys’ Free-Speech Capitol Riot Defense Fails in Court
(Bloomberg) -- The First Amendment right to free speech doesn’t protect four leaders of the right-wing Proud Boys group from criminal charges over their participation in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, a federal judge ruled.
The men were properly charged with conduct that isn’t protected by the Constitution, including trespassing, destruction of property and interference with law enforcement -- all with the intention of obstructing Congress, U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly in Washington ruled Tuesday.
The motion to dismiss was filed by Ethan Nordean, Joseph Biggs, Zachary Rehl and Charles Donohoe, who respectively led local Proud Boys chapters in Washington state, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, according to prosecutors.
“No matter defendants’ political motivations or any political message they wished to express, this alleged conduct is simply not protected by the First Amendment,” wrote Kelly, an appointee of former President Donald Trump. “Defendants are not, as they argue, charged with anything like burning flags, wearing black armbands, or participating in mere sit-ins or protests.”
The U.S. Justice Department has charged more than 700 people with crimes stemming from the riot, including dozens of members of right-wing militia groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters who are making similar arguments in seeking dismissal.
Lawyers for Nordean and Biggs declined to comment. Lawyers for the other two men didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
The Proud Boys, known for clashing with Black Lives Matter protesters and left-wing Antifa rioters in Portland, Oregon, and other U.S. cities, describe themselves as a “pro-Western fraternal for men who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world; aka Western Chauvinists,” according to court filings.
The four Proud Boys members argued that Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6 couldn’t have been obstructed by them because it was not an “official proceeding” under the law. They argued, for example, that witnesses aren’t ordered to appear at the joint session like they are at impeachment hearings for other investigative proceedings.
“The Court is not persuaded,” Kelly wrote. “The relevant actors here -- Vice President Pence and the members of Congress -- were ‘directed to appear’ by both statute and the Constitution.”
Kelly also rejected their argument that the law against obstructing official proceedings is too vague to be used in the Capitol riot case.
Trump drew bipartisan criticism during the 2020 presidential race when he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during a debate with Biden rather than unambiguously condemn the militant group.
The case is U.S. v. Nordean, 1:21-cr-00175, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Washington).
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