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Santilli has right to free speech

Pete Santilli is not the kind of guy we’d want in any of our company’s two dozen newsrooms. The Cincinnati shock jock isn’t big on looking at facts that don’t support his anti-government, anti-immigration views.

But that doesn’t mean he should be stuck in the Multnomah County jail.

Santilli got swept up in the Jan. 26 arrests of more than a dozen people involved in the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

As chronicled in a story by Pamplin Media Group web editor Kevin Harden, Santilli and a small crew drove to Burns in mid-December and began broadcasting from the Silver Spur Motel.

His reports sympathized with the protests linked to the federal legal case against Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond.

These days, Santilli and his lawyer claim that he’s a journalist being jailed for his views.

Federal prosecutors, however, claim Santilli did more than report and comment on the events. They argue that he affected events, acting as a spokesman for rally organizers and the group that eventually violated federal law by taking over the wildlife refuge.

In an era of tweeting, blogging and direct-to-YouTube video posts, it’s getting trickier to determine who is a journalist.

But in this case, it is not necessary.

Everyone has a right to free speech.

Perhaps prosecutors know something about Santilli’s actions that hasn’t been disclosed, but at the moment, it’s hard to see why he’s looking at federal felony charges that could keep him behind bars for six years.

And even if there was cause for the arrest, we are deeply troubled that Santilli has been denied bail and will be stuck in jail until his trial.

We’re not alone.

Late last week, Mat dos Santos, legal director of ACLU of Oregon, issued a statement highlighting that group’s concern about the decision to keep Santilli in custody.

Santos noted that Santilli is a politically polarizing figure whose views are offensive to many.

“But does he pose a real threat?” dos Santos asked. “That’s the question asked of a federal judge last week: ‘Should Pete Santilli remain in custody while awaiting his criminal trial?’”

As the ACLU noted, it seems like a stretch. Among its observations:

n Santilli, who has no history of violence, was calm and compliant with police during the protests in Harney County.

n He not only was unarmed while in Burns, but also urged other protesters to leave their guns behind.

n In arguing for his continued detention, prosecutors relied on inflammatory statements he made years ago.

“Situations like this — where words alone are used to label a speaker so dangerous or somehow threatening as to warrant the deprivation of his liberty — demand the highest caution,” dos Santos wrote. “Where there is any question, we should err on the side of the speaker.”

There’s no doubt Santilli blurred the line between observation and activism, but so have others. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, a darling of progressives, recently spoke at a rally in his hometown of Flint, Mich., accusing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of poisoning the city’s water and calling for Snyder’s arrest.

Regardless of what they call themselves, the Santillis and Moores of the world retain their constitutional right to free speech, even when that speech is unpopular.

As dos Santos put it: “Recognizing and respecting the line between protected beliefs, even radical beliefs, and violent or criminal activity does not undermine our security, but rather strengthens it.”

For that reason, we join the ACLU in saying that Pete Santilli should be allowed to leave his Portland jail cell and go back to his broadcasts, exercising his right to speak until he gets his day in court.