The ACLU of Oregon has come to the defense of Pete Santilli, one of the 16 people indicted by federal prosecutors last week for organizing an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.
"While many people might disagree with statements made by those involved in the Malheur takeover, Americans have a fundamental right to freedom of speech," wrote Mat dos Santos, the legal director for the ACLU of Oregon, in statement posted to the group's website Tuesday.
Santilli is the host of an Internet radio show, which for weeks broadcasted hundreds of hours of live footage from the refuge and around Harney County. Santilli was arrested in Burns, Oregon on Jan. 26 along with militant leaders.
Santilli’s lawyer has argued for his pretrial release and said repeatedly in court that Santilli is an independent journalist. But last week, U.S. District Chief Justice Michael Mosman affirmed a decision
, ruling some of his statements posed a risk to the community, specifically law enforcement.
In its statement, the ACLU said despite the fact that Santilli is “politically polarizing and, to many, downright offensive,” the radio host has protected First Amendment rights to make those statements.
“We can all agree that we should not hold members of the media or protesters in jail without bail simply because they have shocking or abhorrent views,” dos Santos wrote. “These are principles that we must stand by, even when we disagree with the message of the speaker.”
Dos Santos wrote that law enforcement can — and should — be able to determine the difference between protected speech and actual threats. And he argued that if there is any question, “we should err on the side of the speaker.”
In an interview, dos Santos said the ACLU would like to see Santilli released before any trial.
"At this point he's being held based on things like statements he made years before the arrest occurred," dos Santos said. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense that this guy has been an ongoing threat to his community."
As far as the ACLU of Oregon's involvement in Santilli's legal defense, dos Santos said "we're still waiting to see what the appropriate role for us is in his case, if any."
Santilli's court-appointed defense attorney, Tom Coan, said the ACLU made strong points in its statement.
"I'm pleased to see that they are taking that position in support of Pete," Coan said.
When he first took the case, Coan said he wasn't sure Santilli was a journalist, but now there's no doubt in his mind.
"The courts protect the lowliest pamphleteer up to The New York Times," Coan said. "Pete is somewhere in between there."
Coan said he's gathering new material to try again for Santilli's release before a new judge. He declined to say what that new information was, but did say he hoped to be in court sometime in the next two weeks.