Legal Law

Special Counsel Jack Smith Demands a New Gag on Trump – JONATHAN TURLEY

The government often waits until Friday night when it wants to file something controversial in seeking to reduce media coverage and public attention. Special Counsel Jack Smith followed this practice this week in quietly filing a motion to gag former president Donald Trump in his Florida case. Smith took the action after Trump suggested that the warrant used on his Palm Beach home included a provision allowing the use of lethal force. While the provision is standard in such warrants, Trump has portrayed the inclusion of the boilerplate language as a threat to his life and the lives of his family. Nevertheless, I believe that the gag order, like Smith’s past demands, is over-broad and a violation of the free speech rights of the former president.

I have been a long critic of gag orders as inimical to free speech. I have specifically opposed past demands by Smith (and prior orders) as overbroad and unconstitutional.

There has been much discussion of the gag order imposed on Trump by Justice Juan Merchan, who is controlling not only the travel but the speech of the leading presidential candidate from his small Manhattan courtroom. He has gagged Trump from speaking about witnesses like Michael Cohen, who has attacked him as both a candidate and as a defendant in public. The New York courts have upheld the order.

What is most troubling is the bar on Trump discussing such figures as Matthew Colangelo. Colangelo was third in command of the Justice Department and gave up that plum position to lead the case against Trump. Colangelo was also paid by the Democratic National Committee for “political consulting.”

So a former high-ranking official in the Biden Justice Department and a past consultant to the DNC is leading the prosecution. With the weaponization of the criminal justice system by the Democrats as a central issue in this campaign, the gag order is curtailing the ability of Trump to address one of the most controversial figures in the effort.

Now Smith would like to radically expand the gag with a new order out of Florida. Notably, Smith has thus far failed in his unrelenting efforts to get one of his two cases to a jury before the election. Thus, this order would gag Trump through the election even though the cases could be effectively scuttled if he were elected.

Trump has used the language to galvanize his supporters, claiming that FBI “WAS AUTHORIZED TO SHOOT ME” and that the government was “just itching to do the unthinkable.” He added that the FBI was “locked & loaded ready to take me out & put my family in danger.” Figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have piled on with claims that the DOJ and FBI were “planning to assassinate Pres. Trump and gave the green light.”

My strong disagreement with Trump on this lethal force provision does not alter my opposition to the gag effort. Many of us have publicly disagreed with these claims and expressed concern that they are fueling rage. Trump’s opponents and the media have made the statements a focus of coverage for days. That is how free speech works. Citizens can reach their own conclusions on the merits in a free and open debate.

Once again, the solution to bad speech is good speech, not censorship or gagging of those with opposing views.

In his Friday filing, Smith is not seeking to protect specific witnesses but the entire government from criticism. He objects that the statements create “a grossly misleading impression about the intentions and conduct of federal law enforcement.” That could very well be true, but Smith is seeking to control what a presidential candidate can say about the government, a chilling measure for any political system. It is particularly concerning when directed at an anti-establishment candidate.

The concerns over the premise of such an order are only exceeded by concerns over its scope. Smith does not seek to define that scope, but rather says that we will know a violation when we see it:

“Whether a particular statement meets that test “must be determined by reference to the statement’s full context. But that condition would clearly prohibit further statements deceptively claiming that the agents involved in the execution of the search warrant were engaged in an effort to kill him, his family, or Secret Service agents.”

The vagueness of the order would create a chilling effect on a political candidate who would have to self-censor to avoid possible contempt sanctions, including jail. For the United States government to seek such a limit on political speech should be widely condemned in the media and politics.

Under this order, the Justice Department would effectively limit what criticism could be voiced of its actions and intentions by the leading candidate for the presidency. For a candidate who has been subject to false allegations, including in the federal Russian collusion investigation, the gag would impose an unprecedented and unconstitutional limit on political speech.

It is another example of Smith’s lack of any sense of restraint in his pursuit of Trump. He has repeatedly shown a pronounced disregard for both due process and free speech in his prosecution of these cases.

Indeed, while the inclusion of the boilerplate language has been exaggerated and distorted, the real threat from the government is evident in the motion filed in response to that criticism. Smith has again fulfilled the narrative with another motion that speaks to his animosity and sense of impunity in the prosecution of Donald Trump.

The Smith motion should be denied and Attorney General Merrick Garland should exercise a modicum of responsibility in his supervision of the case. While Smith is being given broad discretion, that independence should not extend to contradicting core departmental policies on interfering with elections or curtailing free speech.

 

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