More than a decade ago, a divided Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Alvarez that an elected member of a district water board in California could not be prosecuted criminally for lying to an audience about winning the Medal of Honor. The court ruled that efforts to criminalize mere lying, without linking the lie to an attempt to gain a material advantage, posed an unacceptable threat to robust exercise of First Amendment rights.
Given that decision, Jack Smith, the special prosecutor investigating former President Donald Trump, was right in concluding that Mr. Trump has a First Amendment right to lie to the general public.
So, where’s the legal beef in the indictment arising from the events that culminated in the storming of the Capitol brought by Mr. Smith against Mr. Trump? It’s in the fact that Mr. Smith isn’t merely charging the former president with lying; he is contending that Mr. Trump lied to gain an unlawful benefit — a second term in office after voters showed him the exit. That kind of speech-related behavior falls comfortably within what the justices call “categorical exceptions” to the First Amendment like true threats, incitements, obscenity, depictions of child sexual abuse, fighting words, libel, fraud and speech incident to criminal conduct.
As the court put it in 1949 in the case of Giboney v. Empire Storage and Ice Co., “it rarely has been suggested that the constitutional freedom for speech and press extends its immunity to speech or writing used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute.”
That is why Mr. Smith will most likely seek to prove that the former president was engaged in “speech incident to criminal conduct” when he and his co-conspirators lied to state legislators, state election officials, gullible supporters, Justice Department lawyers and Vice President Mike Pence in an illegal effort to prevent Joe Biden from succeeding him as president. Since Mr. Trump is charged with, among other crimes, conspiracy to defraud the United States and to deprive people of the right to have their votes counted, Mr. Smith would clearly be right in arguing that the Alvarez decision doesn’t apply.
Characterizing Mr. Trump’s words as “speech incident to criminal conduct” would neatly solve Mr. Smith’s First Amendment problem, but at a substantial cost to the prosecution. To win a conviction, the government must persuade 12 jurors to peer inside Mr. Trump’s head and find beyond a reasonable doubt that he knew he was lying when he claimed to be the winner of the 2020 election. If Mr. Trump actually believed his false assertions, his speech was not “incident to criminal conduct.”
How can Mr. Smith persuade 12 jurors that no reasonable doubt exists that Mr. Trump knew he was lying? The prosecution will, no doubt, barrage the jury with reams of testimony showing that the former president was repeatedly told by every reputable adviser and administration official that no credible evidence of widespread electoral fraud existed, and that Mr. Pence had no choice but to certify Mr. Biden as the winner.
But there also will likely be evidence that fervent supporters of Mr. Trump’s efforts fed his narcissism with bizarre false tales of result-changing electoral fraud, and frivolous legal theories justifying interference with Mr. Biden’s certification as president-elect. Those supporters could include Rudy Giuliani; Sidney Powell, a lawyer and purveyor of wild conspiracy theories; Jeffrey Clark, the acting head of the Justice Department’s civil division, who apparently plotted with Mr. Trump to unseat the acting attorney general and take control of the department; and John Eastman, the lawyer who hatched the plan that Mr. Pence refused to follow to keep Mr. Trump in power.
Maybe Mr. Trump himself will swear to his good faith belief that he won. With all that conflicting testimony, how is a conscientious juror to decide for sure what was really going on inside his head?
The answer lies in the Supreme Court’s doctrine of “willful blindness.” A dozen years ago, in the case of Global-Tech Appliances v. SEB, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for all but one justice, ruled that proof of willful blindness is the legal equivalent of proving guilty knowledge.
As Justice Alito explained it: “Many criminal statutes require proof that a defendant acted knowingly or willfully, and courts applying the doctrine of willful blindness hold that defendants cannot escape the reach of these statutes by deliberately shielding themselves from clear evidence of critical facts that are strongly suggested by the circumstances.”
In other words, when a defendant, like Mr. Trump, is on notice of the potential likelihood of an inconvenient fact (Mr. Biden’s legitimate victory), and closes his eyes to overwhelming evidence of that fact, the “willfully blind” defendant is just as guilty as if he actually knew the fact. While this argument is not a slam dunk, there’s an excellent chance that 12 jurors will find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Mr. Trump hid from the truth by adopting willful blindness.
Burt Neuborne is a professor emeritus at New York University Law School, where he was the founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice. He was the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1981 to 1986.