Even as the House of Representatives laid the groundwork Monday for a second impeachment of President Donald Trump, one of his supporters, Jessica Martinez, took heavy political fire 3,000 miles away in her role as a member the Whittier City Council.
Martinez was in Washington D.C. last week when Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol in the hope of upending the recent presidential election. Now, many in the city of 86,000 want her to step down from the council.
She’s hardly alone. From local teachers to attorneys to students to business owners, people from all parts of Southern California who attended the D.C. insurrection — some as participants in the breach of the Capitol buildings, some as instigators of the violence that left five people dead, and others, like Martinez, who say they were on hand simply to express an opinion — are facing a swarm of public shaming.
“As Americans, we have the right to free speech as long it’s exercised peacefully,” Martinez said Friday, as she condemned the violence. “That’s what I was doing.”
But as locals react to Internet evidence of who did what during the insurrection, a debate is emerging over free speech rights, their limits, and their consequences.
Like the insurrection itself — shown live on television and re-shown by many participants on social media video — the consequences of having a role in taking over the Capitol are playing out in public.
At least 161 faculty members and trustees at Chapman University in Orange have signed a publicly circulated petition calling for the removal of law professor John Eastman. They say Eastman, who spoke to the marchers before they broached the Capitol, helped to incite the violence.
In Los Angeles, a Cal State Northridge student, James McMillan, drew focus in the college paper, The Sun Dial, which reported his “Storm Congress, baby!” posted to social media outside the Capitol.
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In the Inland Empire, Jim Riley, owner of Riley’s Farm, drew a “false information” warning from Facebook over his posting “What I Saw at the Insurrection.” By late Monday, the Oak Glen company’s page was at risk of being unpublished.
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In south Orange County, elementary school teacher Kristine Hostetter is facing an investigation by officials at Capistrano Unified School District after parents flooded district offices with complaints that she’d been seen in social media posts marching toward the Capitol with people who said they were planning to storm the building. Hostetter didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Also in Orange County, a Huntington Beach hairdresser and conservative activist said he felt threatened after publicly praising the insurrectionists as “patriots.”
On Monday, some who were in D.C. were trying to distance themselves from the event.
On the day of the insurrection, Jan. 6, Michelle Stauder Peterson, the lead organizer for the Huntington Beach chapter of the “Recall Gavin Newsom” effort, posted a video on Facebook showing herself and a friend joining a crush of protesters entering a door into the U.S. Capitol. Her video captures people yelling expletives at police officers who are trying to hold back the mob.
But within hours of sharing the video, Peterson, a tax preparer, took it down and also apparently deleted her Facebook account.
Reached by phone, Peterson said, “I have no comment. Thank you.”
Others, however, remained strident.
Leigh Dundas, an Orange County attorney, delivered a speech to Trump supporters on Jan. 5, a day before the insurrection, telling the crowd that if Vice President Mike Pence didn’t vote to throw out Electoral College results Americans would have to choose to live as “slaves” or to “rise up” just as they did during the American Revolution.
“Any alleged American who acted in a turncoat fashion and sold us out and committed treason, we would be well without our rights to take ‘em out back and shoot ‘em or hang ‘em,” Dundas said in a video shared to her social media page.
Dundas — who made headlines over the summer for doxxing Orange County’s health officer Nichole Quick for implementing a mask mandate — could not be reached for comment on her involvement in last week’s event. But in another Facebook post, she said she was in the crowd outside the Capitol that got tear gassed. She also defended videos that showed her shouting profanities at Capitol Police, arguing that police were the aggressors and repeating the unfounded claim that outside agitators — not Trump supporters — were the actual participants in the Capitol building violence.
Speech protected. So is criticism
Legal experts say protesters who argue they shouldn’t be punished for expressing a political viewpoint are correct — up to a point.
“The First Amendment is broadly protective of speech, even if that speech is abhorrent to a majority of Americans,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment coalition.
But, he added, the right doesn’t protect people from criticism or some forms of punishment.
“Just because people have the right to speak freely under the First Amendment, does not mean they are insulated from any criticisms of that speech, or any political consequences for engaging in that speech,” Snyder said.
Other experts pointed out that while protections for speech don’t extend to defamation and criminal behavior. However, they noted, speech alone can’t cause a person to lose their employment.
“If someone just wants to denounce someone somewhere, that’s an expression of their own First Amendment rights,” said Eugene Volokh, a free speech expert and law professor at UCLA. He pointed out that in California, like many other states, it’s illegal to fire someone for expressing political speech.
That’s the needle Whittier council member Martinez hopes to thread.
On Friday, after images emerged online showing her in D.C., she denounced the breach at the Capitol.
“I detest violence and the fact that people were hurt, injured and killed,” she said. “I think it’s horrible and that should never occur.”
Martinez, a Trump supporters who claims, without evidence, that the November election was hacked, added: “I wanted to stand as a citizen concerned about our election integrity and to ask them to review the evidence.”
But on social media, critics emerged.
“Nah, doesn’t work that way,” read one post on Twitter. “You posted on your social media pgs. You supported an insurrection against the government… you’re a traitor….”
Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri said that since Martinez didn’t take part in the violence at the Capitol building, there’s no reason for her to be removed from the City Council.
“Everyone has their First Amendment right to protest, whether you’re on the left of the right, that’s your right,” he said. “She chose to utilize her right.”
Others, however, suggest that participating in this particular protest — which ended America’s streak of handing over national power without violence — disqualifies people from holding a political position.
Democrats for Justice, a Whittier-based political group, said it has already gathered garnered more than 5,000 signatures calling for Martinez to be removed from office. The petition says Martinez was part of an “armed coup” and that she is a “domestic terrorist.”
Stakes are high
Marching into the Capitol building wasn’t speech, and people who participated in the protest in that fashion are starting to face criminal prosecution and public punishment. Reuters, among others, has reported that some who stormed the Capitol have been fired after their identities were publicized online.
Those punishments figure to expand.
On Monday, newly elected State Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, called for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer to work with federal authorities to prosecute any local residents who were involved in the insurrection.
He also asked that they pursue criminal felony charges under California’s conspiracy law.
“It seems nearly certain that Californians, including some residing in Orange County and the 37th Senate District I represent, took part in the planning of these crimes,” Min said in the letter, citing media reports of locals involved in Wednesday’s events.
Min also asked for a private briefing on the status of state and local investigations into any role locals played in the insurrection.
Even in the face of video evidence, some who went to D.C. question news accounts of what happened. Like Martinez, they claim liberal agitators, not Trump supporters, were at the front edge of the violence.
“I hear NO stories of anyone actually making it to the house chamber, which leads me to believe that the people who actually got to the chamber were Antifa cowards waiting to do their thing,” wrote Riley, owner of the Riley’s Farm apple orchard, in a Facebook post that drew the label “false information.”
Riley, in an interview, said there was no excuse for the violence. And in his view, he added, Trump did not push for it.
“What he was doing was saying ‘be passionate about voter fraud,’” Riley said.
By Monday, in anticipation of being shut down by Facebook, Riley was referring followers to MeWe, another social networking site.
Eastman, once the dean of Chapman’s law school, before making an unsuccessful run for California Attorney General, decried violence and chalked up the unrest to a few bad apples. A day after the insurrection, Eastman said “it was a wonderful rally.”
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Reporters Alicia Robinson and Susan Goulding contributed to this story.
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