Here's the key flaw in a First Amendment defense for Trump's incitement
Donald Trump is the only American president to be impeached twice. This time, he stands accused in a single article of impeachment of "incitement of insurrection" for delivering an incendiary speech on January 6 to an angry mob of supporters, sparking them to storm the U.S. Capitol building to prevent the certification of Joe Biden's Electoral College victory.
Trump will now be tried in the Senate. There, he will be given the opportunity to defend his shameless rhetoric and behavior. Among other claims, he will likely mount a defense under the First Amendment and argue that his speech was constitutionally protected by the Supreme Court's landmark 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio.
The Senate can be expected to consider Trump's position carefully and fully. But at the end of the proceeding, no matter who leads his legal team, any impeachment defense based on Brandenburg and the First Amendment will be—to put it in the vernacular—complete and utter garbage.
Clarence Brandenburg was a small-time bigot who owned a television repair shop in the Village of Arlington Heights, a tiny hamlet roughly 11 miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio. He was also a Ku Klux Klan leader.
On June 28, 1964, at Brandenburg's invitation, a reporter and a cameraperson from a Cincinnati TV station attended a Klan rally held on a nearby farm. Footage from the rally showed 12 hooded figures gathered around a burning cross, shouting various epithets, including: "This is what we are going to do to the niggers," "Send the Jews back to Israel," "Save America," "Bury the niggers," "Give us our state [sic] rights," and "Freedom for the whites."
Brandenburg was also filmed, saying:
"The Klan has more members in the State of Ohio than does any other organization. We're not a revengent [sic] organization, but if our President, our Congress, our Supreme Court, continues [sic] to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it's possible that there might have to be some revengeance [sic] taken."
"We are marching on Congress July the Fourth, four hundred thousand strong. From there, we are dividing into two groups, one group to march on St. Augustine, Florida, the other group to march into Mississippi. Thank you."
Brandenburg was subsequently arrested and convicted of violating Ohio's criminal syndicalism law, which made it a crime to advocate violence as a means of achieving political reform. He was fined and sentenced to prison.
Five years later, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction. In its decision, the court articulated a new test for determining the constitutionality of subversive speech, holding that the First Amendment protects advocating the use of force or lawbreaking "except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."
As should be obvious to anyone this side of Rudy Giuliani, Brandenburg's prosecution was entirely different from the incitement case against Trump, both on the facts and the law.
Unlike Trump, Brandenburg never threatened imminent action of any kind. His diatribes were racist and repugnant, but also the stuff of addlebrained, semi-grammatical fantasy. Brandenburg had no minions at his command, let alone the 400,000 he had conjured in his speech. He posed no immediate danger to anyone.
Trump, by contrast, has millions of dedicated supporters at his disposal. In the first presidential debate in September, he told the Proud Boys to "stand back, and stand by." Starting in December, he began to urge his supporters to come to Washington on January 6, tweeting on December 19 that there would be a "[b]ig protest," and inviting them to "Be there, will be wild!" Referring to the protest again at a rally in Georgia on January 4, he pledged, "We're going to take what they did to us on November 3. We're going to take it back."
The MAGA zealots, white nationalists, and neofascists who showed up to hear Trump on January 6 were ready, willing and able to do his bidding. They were treated to a rambling speech filled with violent imagery, as the sitting president of the United States urged his supporters to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol and to "fight like hell" to "stop the steal" of the election. He even falsely promised to march alongside them, proclaiming, "I'll be there with you."
While Trump never mentioned specific acts of violence and only once, in a single brief mention, did he tell his supporters "to peacefully… make your voices heard," the speech as a whole was a call to imminent lawless action, as many in the mob construed it. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have reported that some of the Capitol marauders actually thought they were acting on direct orders from Trump.
In inciting the mob, Trump arguably violated two federal statutes that prohibit insurrection and rebellion against the United States as well as seditious conspiracy.
Whether or not Trump is ever criminally prosecuted, he without question committed an impeachable offense. The history of American impeachment clearly establishes that such offenses may encompass both criminal and noncriminal conduct. According to the House of Representatives' procedural practice manual, "Less than one-third of all the articles [of impeachment] the House has adopted have explicitly charged the violation of a criminal statute or used the word 'criminal' or 'crime' to describe the conduct alleged."
In Federalist Paper No. 65, Alexander Hamilton described impeachable offenses as "those… which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself." [emphasis in original]
The First Amendment cannot be invoked to save Trump from an abuse of power so egregious and deadly. To do so would be to turn the amendment on its head. As Joshua Matz and Norm Eisen argued in a January 13 op-ed in Politico, "the Free Speech Clause exists to protect private citizens from the government, not to protect government officials from accountability for their own abusive statements."
It's now up to the Senate to sit in judgment on Trump's defilement of the Constitution. To borrow a line from the Broadway musical Hamilton, each and every senator should know, "History has its eyes on you."
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