The media was all a-flurry when news of Judge Tanya Chutkan issuing a partial gag order on former president Donald Trump in prior to his scheduled D.C. trial. Mr. Trump naturally cried foul, claiming the deep state and the White House is trying to rob him of his right to free speech as he jockeys for another stint in the white house. So, what do we know about gag orders in general, and Mr. Trump’s in particular?
What is it?
First up on the docket: what is a gag order? In terms of criminal trials, a gag order is a court-issued decree that impacts a person’s ability to discuss a case. While they usually are issued to defense attorneys who may be inclined to sway public opinion on a case with slanted media interviews, in Mr. Trump’s case the order was directed at both the attorneys and the defendant himself. That is because Trumps’ social media and news presence is so pervasive, and because his social media posts, in particular, have been pretty inflammatory.
Why Trump’s was a “Partial” Gag Order
Yes, Mr. Trump is running for president. He has the right to make speeches, to complain about the opposing party, and to denigrate the current man in the White House, not to mention the justice department. What he cannot do, according to the judge, is disparage prosecutors, court employees, or witnesses, or any of their families. Since former Vice-president Mike Pence is both a witness and a political foe, specific instructions were given as to the kinds of comments Mr. Trump can make about Mr. Pence. Criticisms about Pence’s political platform: okay. Suggestions Pence should not testify at trial or cannot be trusted to tell the truth: not okay.
Why Courts Impose Gag Order
There is nothing new about issuing a gag order in a criminal trial. In fact, you could almost say they are routine in cases where a judge would like to limit public discourse on a pending trial. And why would they want that? Some cases are so volatile that there is a concern that either witnesses will be influenced, or even intimidated, or that the jury will be tainted. In the case of Mr. Trump, the judge specifically noted that the integrity of court proceedings was at risk without the partial gag order. And as far as free speech is concerned, the court must consider the right to a fair trial and the safety of everyone just as much as it weighs one’s right to speak out in public.
What if a Gag Order is Violated?
Any time someone chooses not to adhere to a judge’s decree, it could mean trouble, and that is the case with gag orders, too. Typically, offenders could find themselves facing court admonishment, fines, and loss of liberty. Mr. Trump has been warned of those possibilities, including the potential of house arrest or time behind bars. Continue reading