The ACLU of Oregon isn’t convinced independent broadcaster Pete Santilli, who has been detained pending trial on a federal conspiracy charge in the takeover of a Harney County wildlife refuge, is a danger to the community and cautions the court against using his broadcast statements against him.
Mat dos Santos, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, issued a public statement on the agency’s website Tuesday afternoon, writing that he was troubled that a federal judge and prosecutors relied on remarks Santilli made months or even years before the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that began Jan. 2.
“I think they should have been looking at his actions and not at his ridiculous shock jock statements that he made,” dos Santos said in an interview. “We have concerns about Pete Santilli’s First Amendment rights. It protects all people no matter who they are or what they believe.”
The ACLU hasn’t decided whether it will get involved in the pending federal court case by filing a friend of the court brief in Santilli’s defense. Dos Santos said the ACLU is “far away” from that decision. The ACLU’s statement came after dos Santos met with Santilli’s lawyer.
Santilli, 50, is one of 16 people named in an unsealed indictment, charged with conspiring to impede federal officers from working at the refuge.
Prosecutors contend Santilli used his show to issue a “call to action,” to encourage more people to participate in the refuge takeover. His lawyer said he was simply documenting a developing story and never stayed overnight at the refuge.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael W. Mosman last week affirmed a magistrate judge’s decision to keep Santilli in custody pending trial. Mosman said he was disturbed by several remarks Santilli made during his online broadcasts promising to shoot federal officers if they came to take him or his guns away.
Mosman said he couldn’t ignore what seemed to be Santilli’s “deeply held beliefs” regarding his distaste for federal law enforcement and found Santilli could be “a real threat to pretrial service officers or U.S. marshals or others who have to deal with him.”
The judge said, however, he recognized that the vast majority of Santilli’s remarks on his show likely amounted to bravado to attract an audience.
Dos Santos said he recognizes that he’s not a judge, sitting in court in the high-profile case, but he was troubled that the court hadn’t placed more weight on Santilli’s lack of violence versus his statements.
“There’s no action that he’s taken consistent with those statements,” dos Santos said. “Even those statements seems like he was kidding.”
In the ACLU’s public statement, dos Santos wrote, “Law enforcement can and should differentiate between controversial statements and real threats. What’s at stake here could indeed be larger than a radio personality’s career, Malheur and Oregon.”
Santilli, through his girlfriend and broadcast partner Deborah Jordan Reynolds, also issued a recorded statement from jail on Monday night, promising to beat the federal case. He accused the federal government of “silencing me with these trumped up, bogus charges.”
“If this can happen to me, it can happen to any member of the media — my example shows there’s a target on your back, especially independent media,” Santilli said.
He promised to be “very, very loud, even louder than I have ever been before,” when he does get out of jail, and urged listeners to send donations to support his show and his girlfriend, who is staying in a hotel in Portland.
His girlfriend said Santilli planned to work on a memoir while he’s in jail.
His next court date is Feb. 24, where he and his co-defendants are scheduled to be arraigned on the indictments.
— Maxine Bernstein
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