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Oath Keepers Convictions Shed Light on Free Speech Limits and Threat Posed by Militias

The verdicts in a high-profile, months long trial of Oath Keepers militia members were, as one defense lawyer acknowledged, “a mixed bag.” Leader Stewart Rhodes was found guilty on Nov. 29, 2022, of the most serious charge—seditious conspiracy—for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and was acquitted on two other related charges.

One of Rhodes’ four co-defendants, Kelly Meggs, was also convicted of seditious conspiracy. All five on trial were found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding, namely Congress’ certification on Jan. 6, 2021, of the 2020 presidential election results.

The convictions for seditious conspiracy—a rarely used, Civil War-era charge typically reserved in recent decades for terror plots—are the most significant yet relating to the violent storming of the Capitol, and have meaning that extends beyond those who were on trial.

As someone who has studied the U.S. domestic militia movement for nearly 15 years, I believe the Oath Keepers convictions illuminate two crucial issues facing the country: the limits of the American right to free speech and the future of the militia movement.

Oath Keepers militia leader Stewart Rhodes, convicted by a jury on Nov. 29, 2022, of seditious conspiracy for orchestrating a plan to keep former President Donald Trump in power.
Collin County Sheriff’s Office via AP

Greater Accountability Oath Keepers militia leader Stewart Rhodes, convicted by a jury on Nov. 29, 2022, of seditious conspiracy for orchestrating a plan to keep former President Donald Trump in power. Collin County Sheriff’s Office via AP

Rhodes’ seditious conspiracy conviction suggests the jury believed, as one prosecutor asserted, that he “concocted a plan for an armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.” In other words, he was convicted over what he had said and written prior to the actual Jan. 6 attack—and this is where free speech comes into play.

The First Amendment guarantees that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It’s considered a

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