NEW YORK—Federal prosecutors’ decision to drop all remaining charges against “J20” protesters is an overdue but important victory for the right to protest, PEN America said in a statement today.

On Friday July 6, federal prosecutors dropped felony charges against the final 38 defendants arrested following the 2017 Inauguration Day protests, or “J20” protests. Over 200 people were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy to riot at a “Disrupt J20” protest after a smaller group of protestors caused property damage around Franklin Square in Washington D.C.

The U.S. Attorney’s office announced that they made their decision to drop the charges against the final defendants “in light of the results of the cases brought to trial,” an apparent reference to the fact that they were unable to convict any of the more than 200 arrested “J20” protestors. 21 people did plead guilty to offenses, all but one of which were misdemeanors.

In previous trial proceedings, prosecutors had argued to jurors that, under their theory of the case, they did not need to demonstrate that an individual defendant had actually engaged in property damage in order to be found guilty. One prosecutor argued to the jury that “You don’t personally have to be the one who breaks a window to be guilty of rioting.”

“This is a long overdue victory not only for the 38 people who have been personally affected by these ongoing criminal proceedings against them, but for the right to protest in general,” said Summer Lopez, Senior Director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America. “At its core, this is about whether police and prosecutors can use the fact that some protesters engaged in property damage as a justification for indiscriminate arrests, essentially treating an entire protest as a criminal activity. In a country that respects the right to protest, the answer must be ‘no.’ Now that the final charges have been dropped, we hope that D.C. area authorities will take a lesson from this episode: that they need to reconsider how best to ensure that the work of upholding public order during political demonstrations does not come at the expense of First Amendment rights.”

PEN America previously released statements on the “J20” protestors in January 2018, when the Justice Department dropped charges against 129 defendants; and in December 2017, when the first 6 protestors to face trial were found not guilty of all charges. At each point, PEN America encouraged prosecutors to drop all remaining charges.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org

CONTACT: 

Summer Lopez, Senior Director for Free Expression Programs: slopez@pen.org