After arresting and charging radio host Pete Santilli with “conspiracy” in connection with his reporting on the occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge, the federal government has sparked an outcry that is making headlines across America and even overseas. Indeed, the growing concerns over the free-speech implications have united critics ranging from the statist American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the liberty-oriented Rutherford Institute. The biggest concern, activists and critics of the case say, is that the federal government is trampling on the rights to free speech and freedom of the press guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Critics of the prosecution also contend that the case is an ominous sign that the federal government is going off the rails.
Santilli, who hosts a popular talk-radio show on Talk Network News, reported live from the Bundy ranch amid the standoff with federal agents, and more recently, from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon occupied by protesters. Media reports noted that he was the first journalist to report on the fatal shooting by law enforcement of occupation spokesman and rancher LaVoy Finicum. Santilli was also among the numerous individuals at the occupation who were ultimately arrested in recent weeks. Like a dozen of the “occupiers,” Santilli was charged with “conspiracy” to “impede federal officers,” a vague and controversial Civil War-era charge that has been criticized — especially when applied to a radio host serving as an embedded journalist amid the protest against thepersecution of two local ranchers and the broader federal assault on liberty, property, and the Constitution.
When Santilli was asked about his role in relation to the occupation, he made clear that speech was at the center of it. “My role is the same here that it was at the Bundy ranch. To talk about the constitutional implications of what is going on here. The Constitution cannot be negotiated,” he was quoted as saying. “What we need, most importantly, is one hundred thousand unarmed men and women to stand together. It is the most powerful weapon in our arsenal…. I’m not armed. I am armed with my mouth. I’m armed with my live stream. I’m armed with a coalition of like-minded individuals who sit at home on YouTube and watch this.” The county sheriff even wrote a note thanking Santilli for going on air and urging spectators across the country to stop making threats.
A video of Santilli’s January 26 arrest that was posted to YouTube sparked alarm early on. The clip shows Santilli calmly and respectfully speaking with law enforcement officers while attempting to negotiate a peaceful exit of women and children from the occupied federal compound. “There are women and children there, we know this — quite a few,” Santilli says. “Please allow us to go up there and get them,” he tells the officers. One of the officers responds: “We appreciate the offer … give us a few minutes to discuss it.” Seemingly without provocation, the officers eventually grab the journalist and inform him that he is under arrest. Despite repeated questioning about the reason, no charge is offered, either to Santilli or to the cameraman who filmed the incident, though the existence of a federal warrant was the likely cause.
Eventually, Santilli ended up being held in Portland, Oregon, and was denied bail. His defense attorney argued that Santilli has a pattern of complying with police orders and no history of violence. “Everything the government is claiming against him is based upon either his speech or his using speech to assemble people,” said his attorney, Thomas Coan. However, according to media reports, U.S. District Chief Judge Michael W. Mosman decided to keep Santilli behind bars pending his trial due to statements he has made on his talk show over the years. Among other controversial statements, Santilli reportedly said he would shoot anyone who came through his door in the middle of the night during a discussion on “no-knock warrants,” something that juries have found justified in the past. He also reportedly said in an episode of his show that he would rather kill or be killed than allow himself to be arrested, Courthouse News Service reported without elaborating.