PORTLAND, Oregon — Citing a lack of evidence, federal prosecutors have dismissed the government’s conspiracy charge against radio shock jock Pete Santilli, a new media journalist who was arrested and charged in connection with his reporting on the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon. The dismissal came on the eve of Santilli’s trial. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute advised Santilli’s court-appointed attorney, Thomas Coan, on the First Amendment protections for Santilli’s activities as a journalist. Santilli is the only journalist among those who were charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers from discharging their duties by use of force, intimidation, or threats. However, Santilli was charged solely as a reporter of information and not as an accomplice to any criminal activity. In coming to Santilli’s defense, Institute attorneys warned that Santilli’s case followed a pattern by the government of intimidating journalists whose reporting portrays the government in a negative light or encourages citizens to challenge government injustice and wrongdoing.
“The FBI’s prosecution of this radio shock jock has been consistent with the government’s ongoing attempts to intimidate members of the press who portray the government in a less than favorable light,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “This is not a new tactic. During the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, numerous journalists were arrested while covering the regions’ civil unrest and the conditions that spawned that unrest. These attempts to muzzle the press were clearly concerted, top-down efforts to restrict the fundamental First Amendment rights of the public and the press. Not only does this tactic silence individual journalists, but it has a chilling effect on the press as a whole, signaling that they will become the target of the government if they report on these events with a perspective that casts the government in a bad light.”
In early January 2016, a group of armed activists, reportedly protesting the federal government’s management of federal lands and its prosecution of two local ranchers convicted of arson, staged an act of civil disobedience by occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon. Broadcaster Pete Santilli, who has covered such protests in the past, including the April 2014 standoff in Nevada between the Bundy ranching family and the federal government over grazing rights, described himself as an embedded journalist reporting on the occupation in Burns. Santilli did not participate in the takeover of the refuge, nor did he reside on the grounds of the refuge. However, as a self-described “shock jock” who uses “colorful language,” Santilli was vocal about his commitment to exercising his First Amendment rights in a nonviolent, peaceful fashion and the need for others to do so as well. When asked to clarify his role in relation to the occupation, Santilli declared, “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.” Santilli also took pains to emphasize during his broadcasts that the only weapon he is using is the First Amendment: “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 and on YouTube watch this.” In the wake of a roadblock that resulted in the arrests of several key leaders of the occupation and the killing of another, Santilli was arrested and eventually indicted with conspiracy to impede federal officers.