Defending Rights & Dissent expresses its deep sense of dismay that a DC Superior Court Judge has refused to dismiss charges against participants in a counter-inauguration protest. The currently nearly 200 defendants face multiple felony charges carrying up to decades in prison for participating in a First Amendment protected assembly.
The charges themselves pertain to property damage and an injured police officer, but prosecutors concede that not all of the nearly 200 defendants engaged in such acts. Instead, prosecutors argue that the entire assembly was a “premeditated rioted” and that by participating in it all are collectively guilty. Many of the defendants aren’t even individually named in the body of the indictments. Among those facing 70 years in prison are two journalists who were covering the march and swept up in a mass arrest (charges against seven other journalists arrested have been dismissed).
Criminal charges require probable cause based on individual suspicion. Both First Amendment jurisprudence and international human rights norms protecting freedom of assembly are clear that one cannot be deprived of their rights to assembly and expression due to the actions of others. Arresting, en masse, all participates in a demonstration in response to acts of property damage directly contravenes these principles. Charging all participates in a demonstration not only contravenes these principles, but criminalizes protest and dissent.
If individuals believe that by merely participating in a political assembly they can be held liable for the acts of third parties and face decades in prison, they are will be less likely to do so. The chilling effect of this prosecution is clear and it is part of a nationwide crackdown on the right to protest.
Given that the indictments are fatally flawed and the prosecution is an assault on the right to protest, we are disappointed that the charges against the J20 defendants were not dismissed.