The request by prosecutors that a judge impose a gag order on former President Donald J. Trump in the federal election-subversion case presents a thorny conflict between the scope of his First Amendment rights and fears that he could — intentionally or not — spur his supporters to violence.
There is little precedent for how the judge overseeing the case, Tanya S. Chutkan, should think about how to weigh strong constitutional protections for political speech against ensuring the functioning of the judicial process and the safety of the people participating in it.
It is one more example of the challenges of seeking to hold to account a norm-shattering former president who is being prosecuted in two federal cases — and two state cases — as he makes another bid for the White House with a message that his opponents have weaponized the criminal justice system against him.
“Everything about these cases is making new law because there are so many gaps in the law,” said Paul F. Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University and a criminal procedure specialist. “The system is held together by people doing the right thing according to tradition, and Trump doesn’t — he jumps into every gap.”
Citing a spate of threats inspired by the indictment of Mr. Trump in the election case, the special counsel overseeing the prosecutions for the Justice Department, Jack Smith, asked Judge Chutkan this month to order the former president to cease his near-daily habit of making “disparaging and inflammatory or intimidating” public statements about witnesses, the District of Columbia jury pool, the judge and prosecutors.
A proposed order drafted by Mr. Smith’s team would also bar Mr. Trump and his lawyers from making — or causing surrogates to make — public statements, including on social media, “regarding the identity, testimony or credibility of prospective witnesses.” The motion cited Mr. Trump’s attacks on former Vice President Mike Pence and former Attorney General William P. Barr, who refused to go along with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The draft order would allow Mr. Trump to say he denies the charges “without further comment.”
A version of the motion was unsealed late last week. Judge Chutkan, of the Federal District Court in Washington, has ordered Mr. Trump’s legal team to file any opposition to it by Monday and is likely to hold a hearing on the request next month. A spokesman for Mr. Trump has called the request “blatant election interference” and a corrupt and cynical attempt to deprive the former president of his First Amendment rights.
Gag orders limiting what trial participants can say outside of court are not uncommon, especially to limit pretrial publicity in high-profile cases. Courts have held that orders barring participants from certain public comments are constitutional to avoid prejudicing a jury, citing the public interest in the fair and impartial administration of trials.
The context of the gag request for Mr. Trump, though, is different in fundamental ways.
Mr. Smith’s filing nodded to the potential for Mr. Trump’s statements to complicate the process of seating an unbiased jury in the case, which is scheduled to go to trial in March. But the request for the gag order focused primarily on a different concern: that Mr. Trump’s angry and vengeful statements about the proceedings against him are putting people in danger now.
The motion cited “multiple threats” to Mr. Smith. It noted that another prosecutor, Jay I. Bratt, had been subject to “intimidating communications” after the former president targeted him in “inflammatory public posts,” falsely saying Mr. Bratt had tipped off the White House before Mr. Trump’s indictment in the case accusing him of mishandling classified documents.
And it cited the case of a Texas woman who has been charged with making death threats to Judge Chutkan last month. She left the judge a voice message using a racist slur, court filings show, and said, “You are in our sights — we want to kill you.”
“If Trump doesn’t get elected in 2024, we are coming to kill you, so tread lightly, bitch,” the message said, adding that “you will be targeted personally, publicly, your family, all of it.”
Prosecutors connected their request to the threats and harassment that election officials and other people carrying out election-related duties experienced after Mr. Trump attacked them in late 2020 as part of his false claims that the election had been stolen.
“The defendant knows that when he publicly attacks individuals and institutions, he inspires others to perpetrate threats and harassment against his targets,” the motion said, adding: “Given the defendant’s history described above and the nature of the threats to the court and to the government, it is clear that the threats are prompted by the defendant’s repeated and relentless posts.”
In that sense, the request for the gag order was as much about what is sometimes called stochastic terrorism — the idea that demonizing someone through mass communication increases the chances that a lone wolf will be inspired to attack the target — as it was about more traditional concerns of keeping a jury from being influenced by statements outside of court.
The request raises both legal and political issues and carries the risk of playing into Mr. Trump’s hands.
The former president and his defense team have made clear that they want people to think the case is about whether he had a First Amendment right to say whatever he wanted about the election. Mr. Smith sought to head off that move by acknowledging in the indictment that Mr. Trump had a right to lie to the public and by not charging him with inciting the Capitol riot.
But the gag order request is directly about what Mr. Trump is allowed to say. Moreover, it has given him more fodder to portray the case as intended to undercut his presidential campaign — and, if he is under a gag order and loses again in 2024, to once again tell his supporters that the election was rigged.
When the motion became public, Mr. Trump riffed on it with apparent glee.
“They want to see if they can silence me. So the media — the fake news — will ask me a question. ‘I’m sorry, I won’t be able to answer’ — how do you think we’ do in that election?” Mr. Trump said at a summit of religious conservatives. “So we are going to have a little bit of a fun with that, I think. That’s a tough one. Can you imagine?”
Implicit in the ways he could “have a little bit of a fun” is the question of how Judge Chutkan could enforce any such order if Mr. Trump skirted its edges or even boldly defied its limits. It would be one thing for her to impose a fine, but if he refused to pay or to tone down his statements, a next step for a judge in a normal case would be to order imprisonment.
Any such step in this case would be legally and politically explosive.
At a hearing last month, Judge Chutkan vowed to “take whatever measures are necessary to protect the integrity of these proceedings” and warned lawyers for Mr. Trump that they and their client should consider their public statements in the case.
“I intend to ensure the orderly administration of justice in this case, as I would with any other case,” she said, “and even arguably ambiguous statements from parties or their counsel, if they could reasonably be interpreted to intimidate witnesses or to prejudice potential jurors, can threaten the process.”
The judge also suggested that she could speed up the trial date as an alternative penalty. “The more a party makes inflammatory statements about this case, which could taint the jury pool or intimidate potential witnesses,” she said, “the greater the urgency will be that we proceed to trial quickly to ensure a jury pool from which we can select an impartial jury.”
Most cases about gag orders affecting criminal defendants have focused on limits imposed on what their lawyers, not the defendants themselves, can say outside of court — in part because defense lawyers typically order their clients to say nothing in public about their cases anyway. That is one of many ways Mr. Trump operates from a different playbook.
In a 1991 case, which prosecutors cited in their motion, the Supreme Court upheld local court rules that bar defense lawyers from making comments outside court that are substantially likely to materially prejudice a jury. Such a regulation, it said, “constitutes a constitutionally permissible balance between the First Amendment rights of attorneys in pending cases and the state’s interest in fair trials.”
But the Supreme Court also suggested that greater speech restrictions might be permissible on lawyers because they are officers of the court. The justices have never addressed what standard a gag order on a defendant must meet to pass First Amendment muster. A handful of appeals courts have addressed gag orders imposed on trial participants who are not lawyers and set different standards.
Margaret C. Tarkington, a law professor at Indiana University, Indianapolis, and a specialist in lawyers’ free-speech rights, predicted that any gag order would be more likely to survive on appeal if Judge Chutkan barred Mr. Trump only from attacking witnesses and jurors. The First Amendment provides particularly strong protections for criticism of government officials, she noted.
Still, Professor Tarkington acknowledged that a gag order that still permitted demonizing the judge and prosecutors would not address much of the concern that prosecutors are raising. She also said past gag-order cases offered few guideposts because Mr. Trump is such a unique figure: His megaphone and its potential impact on his more extreme supporters — as demonstrated by the Capitol attack on Jan. 6, 2021 — puts him in a different realm.
“It’s a really hard argument in normal circumstances to say the government, who is prosecuting someone, can shut them up from defending themselves in public,” Professor Tarkington said. “What makes this backward from everything else is that normally, in every criminal prosecution I can think of, the power imbalance is that the state has all the power and the defendant has none. But in this case, you have a defendant who has very significant power.”
In their motion to Judge Chutkan, prosecutors also cited an appeals court ruling in 2000 that involved a rare example of a defendant who challenged a gag order. A judge had prevented all trial participants from making statements outside the court “intended to influence public opinion” about the case’s merits, and the defendant, an elected insurance commissioner in Louisiana named Jim Brown, wanted to be exempted. But the appeals court upheld it.
The motion said the Brown precedent showed that the reasoning of the 1991 Supreme Court case upholding gag orders on defense lawyers “applies equally” to defendants. But prosecutors omitted another seemingly relevant factor: The gag order was lifted for about two months to avoid interfering with Mr. Brown’s re-election campaign and reimposed only after the election was over.
“Brown was able to answer, without hindrance, the charges of his opponents regarding his indictment throughout the race,” the appeals court noted, adding, “The urgency of a campaign, which may well require that a candidate, for the benefit of the electorate as well as himself, have absolute freedom to discuss his qualifications, has passed.”