LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal judge in Los Angeles dropped all charges against three men charged with inciting riots across California as part of a white nationalist group, finding their actions were protected speech.
In a 12-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney said the statute the men were charged under, the Anti-Riot Act, is “unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.”
“It is easy to champion free speech when it advocates a viewpoint with which we agree. It is much harder when the speech promotes ideas that we find abhorrent. But an essential function of free speech is to invite dispute,” Carney wrote.
In court on Monday, prosecutors urged Carney to carve out sections of the statute to hold the men accountable for their overt acts of inciting and participating in violence at a rally in Berkeley, California, in April 2017.
But Carney agreed with the facial challenge to the Anti-Riot Act brought by the defense, noting prosecutions under the law that was established in 1968 are rare.
Eason’s attorney John McNicholas said the charges the men faced – conspiracy to commit rioting and travel or use of interstate commerce with intent to riot – did not pertain to the actual physical violence that took place in Berkeley. That rally spiraled into a melee, but McNicholas said the indictment focused on conversations the men had on phones, computers and on the drive to Northern California.
“It is about assembly,” said McNicholas.
Deputy public defender Julia Deixler said the Anti-Riot Act covers a wide range of verbs.
“We can imagine how all these verbs cover lawful assembly and speech,” Deixler said in court.
Outside the courtroom, Eason – flanked by his family – declined to comment. McNicholas said, “The law can’t go and suppress everyone’s First Amendment Rights,” adding: “People who commit crimes will continue to be punished.”
Deixler and criminal defense attorney Peter Swarth, representing Boman and Rundo, did not comment after the hearing.
Members of the white supremacist group Rise Above Movement (RAM) were arrested on charges of plotting riots and inciting violence across the Golden State in 2017. One member of the group, Tyler Laube, pleaded guilty to the charge while the other three, Robert Rundo, Robert Boman and Aaron Eason were ordered released on Monday.
Carney told the three men in court to move away from “violence and hate.”
“I don’t care what idiots Antifa are,” Carney told Boman and Rundo, referring to the conglomerate of militant antifascist groups. “You’re both young men. You don’t want to be in custody for years.”
Carney noted he expects Laube to follow up on the order dismissing the charges since he’d already pleaded guilty. He also declined a request by prosecutors to stay the dismissal while they put together an appeal.
The Rise Above Movement has its roots Orange County, until recently a conservative stronghold in Southern California. Group members were also involved in inciting violence at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd and killed protester Heather Heyer.
Federal prosecutors say the four Southern California men did not have any direct involvement in the Charlottesville rally. Instead, they started brawls at political protests while posing as security for those who were marching in the name of free speech, according to prosecutors.
A “Make American Great Again” rally on a beach turned violent when RAM members attacked several counterprotesters and journalists. RAM members chased people off the beach and continued to attack them in the parking lot, prosecutors said.
Rundo, Boman, Eason and Laube were arrested this past October and charged with organizing and participating in riots across the state.
According to prosecutors, Rundo founded the “combat ready” group in the winter of 2016-17 with Benjamin Drake Daley, 25, who was arrested with three other members on federal conspiracy and rioting charges following Charlottesville riot in August 2017.
In a written order, Carney urged the government to find other ways to “prevent and punish” the actions of groups like RAM.
“Make no mistake that it is reprehensible to throw punches in the name of teaching Antifa some lesson. Nor does the court condone RAM’s hateful and toxic ideology. But the government has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent and punish such behavior without sacrificing the First Amendment,” Carney wrote.”