Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Oregon ACLU Declares Support for Jailed YouTuber

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - The ACLU of Oregon declared its support for independent journalist Pete Santilli, who is being held without bail after a federal judge found statements he made on his talk show made him a safety threat.

Santilli says he was an embedded journalist during Ammon Bundy's armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Santilli is one of 13 defendants indicted on a charge of conspiring to keep federal officers from doing their jobs.

But detaining him is a dangerous affront to the First Amendment, according to Mat dos Santos, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon.

U.S. District Chief Judge Michael W. Mosman decided to keep Santilli in jail pending his trial on the basis of a handful of statements he made on his YouTube talk show "The Pete Santilli Show," despite arguments from lawyer Thomas Coan that Santilli's actions showed a documented pattern of compliance with police orders.

Mosman pointed to three statements Santilli made on his show over the last year. Discussing no-knock warrants on the show, Santilli said he would shoot anyone who came through his door in the middle of the night.

In another episode, Santilli said that he is always armed and would rather kill or be killed than let himself be arrested. And Santilli said that he had buried his unregistered guns in California to avoid surrendering them under a restraining order that was later dismissed.

Mosman, who repeatedly referred to Santilli as a "shock jock," acknowledged the challenge of evaluating the statements of a person whose job requires him to create an outrageous public persona in order to gain listeners.

"I have to decide whether the defendant should be taken at his word or not as a shock jock, making the inflammatory statements that one would have to make to create an audience," Mosman said at Santilli's detention hearing last Thursday.

Still, Mosman found that several of Santilli's statements on his show proved he might pose a threat to the U.S. Marshals who would be responsible for supervising him if he were released on home arrest.

In an interview, dos Santos said Mosman's conclusion was an affront to Santilli's First Amendment rights that could have far-reaching effects.

"How crazy would it be if your own statements in your Facebook or Twitter account could be used by the federal government - going through hours and hours of content and cherry-picking comments that without context could make you sound completely crazy?

"We don't want federal prosecutors to be able to go through and cherry-pick statements," he added. "We don't want a situation where members of the public or members of the media are being reviewed by the government and their statements are used to label them a danger. By doing that, we really risk undercutting our civil discourse."

Dos Santos said the First Amendment protects everyone, regardless of their beliefs or whether they are an accepted part of the mainstream media.

"In this instance, whether Santilli was a member of the media was completely beside the point," dos Santos said. "The judge was looking at flight risk and danger to community. Here, he was specifically looking at whether he would be violent to officers of the court.

"So his role as a member of the media only becomes an issue because the federal prosecutors are using statements they took from his online talk show and his live stream to prove he would be a risk to officers of the court. And that's where our problem comes from. We think in this very narrow instance the government is overreaching."

In his statement Wednesday on behalf of the ACLU, dos Santos said the government was treading in dangerous territory.

"Situations like this-where words alone are used to label a speaker so dangerous or somehow threatening as to warrant the deprivation of his liberty-demand the highest caution," dos Santos said. "Where there is any question, we should err on the side of the speaker."

The ACLU Oregon's Twitter feed exploded with criticism Wednesday night.

But dos Santos told Courthouse News the ACLU has a responsibility to protect everyone's First Amendment rights, even if what they say is distasteful or offensive.

"We just can't hold members of the media in jail without bail simply because they have shocking views," dos Santos said.

Follow @@karinapdx
Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.