J20 protesters.
J20 protesters. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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In a verdict that could have big implications for free speech during protests nationwide, a federal jury acquitted six defendants of charges stemming from protests in Washington D.C on the day of President Trump's inauguration.

The defendants (including a photojournalist and two street medics) faced more than 50 years in prison for alleged property destruction, rioting and conspiracy. Although none of them committed vandalism that day, federal prosecutors tried to make a case that they should be held responsible for property damage done by others.

Civil rights and free speech advocates worried that convictions in this trial could set a chilling precedent that peaceful protesters can be held liable for being in the vicinity of violence or vandalism. Police arrested most of the defendants using a tactic known as "kettling," wherein they encircled a group of people and detained everyone inside.

The ruling could also have big implications for Seattle, where property damage during protests happens on the regular. Prosecutors hammered on the black bloc-style attire worn by many of the arrestees that day as evidence of a conspiracy. (Anyone who has been downtown or near Westlake during May Day knows what black bloc looks like.)


Nearly 200 other defendants, including journalists, still face charges stemming from the rally, known as the DistruptJ20 protest. Today's victory is a promising sign for them ahead of the holidays, but whether prosecutors continue to pursue cases against them remains to be seen.