ACLU urges judge to reconsider Trump gag order in DC election case

By Andrew Goudsward

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday urged a U.S. judge to reconsider a partial gag order she imposed on Donald Trump in the case accusing him of trying to overturn his 2020 election defeat, arguing it violates his free speech rights.

“Trump retains a First Amendment right to speech, and the rest of us retain a right to hear what he has to say,” the ACLU wrote in an amicus brief filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.

The organization argued that the gag order by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, which she has temporarily lifted, is “unconstitutionally vague” and covers such a broad range of topics that it would “undermine public discussion on matters of public concern.”

The order bars the former U.S. president and others directly involved in the criminal case from making public statements that target prosecutors, court staff and potential witness in the case. It allows Trump to criticize the U.S. Justice Department and to denounce the prosecution as politically motivated.

Chutkan issued the order after finding that Trump’s social media posts and public comments risk influencing witnesses and prompting threats and harassment against public officials. Trump has repeatedly referred to Special Jack Smith, who is prosecuting the case, as a “thug” and “deranged.”

Trump, who has criticized the restrictions as a constraint on his presidential campaign, is appealing the order to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It is temporarily on hold while Chutkan considers Trump’s request for a longer pause.

It is unclear whether Chutkan will consider the ACLU’s arguments. The judge has previously denied requests from outside organizations to file briefs in the case.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to the charges in the federal election case, one of four criminal cases he is facing as he runs for president as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024.

The ACLU has been a vocal critic of Trump and frequently challenged his administration’s policies while he was in the White House. The group has faced criticism for veering toward uniform liberal advocacy and away from its traditional stance of defending civil liberties across the political spectrum.

“This isn’t the first time that we have said that even Donald Trump’s First Amendment rights have to be protected,” said Ben Wizer, the director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “It’s always been our view that if free speech rights don’t belong to all, then they don’t belong to any.”

(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)