‘1st Amendment’ Group Sues New York Times Over Unflattering Description
On the stormy evening of Jan. 5, 2021 on a stage at Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C., Cindy Chafian warmed up the crowd. “Are you all pissed? Are you ready to fight back? Tomorrow we’re going to make history!”
Chafian — a right-wing activist who helped organize D.C. rallies that preceded the insurrection of Jan. 6 — asked the crowd to give thanks to “people who often go unseen and unknown.” First, she gave “a huge shout out to Enrique and the Proud Boys.” Lamenting that the Proud Boys’ leader, Enrique Tarrio, couldn’t speak as planned, she led a rowdy chant of appreciation: “En-ri-que!” “En-ri-que!”
Chafian then introduced Robert Patrick Lewis, founder of a group called 1st Amendment Praetorian. More than two dozen 1AP members were serving as “demonstration marshalls” to “help maintain order among participants,” according to the rally’s permit. “These guys work vigilantly,” Chafian said. “You don’t see ’em. You don’t hear ’em. But know this. But when you guys are going back to your hotel tonight, they’re the ones who are integrated into crowds keeping you safe.”
Chafian put 1AP in notable — indeed, notorious — company: “Them, and the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters. All of those guys keep you safe. All of them. I’ll stand with them, because I’m tired of the Left telling us we can’t talk about them.”
The burly, bearded Lewis then strode onto center stage and gave Chaffian a hug, before turning to the cameras, and the crowd he greeted as “Patriots!.” Standing at the mic, Lewis spoke for 1AP, but didn’t linger on security logistics. Rather, he invoked 1776 and the American Revolution: “Not far from here, General George Washington — in weather just like this — loaded up a ragtag group of soldiers who crossed the Delaware River,” Lewis said, before shouting: “This is our Delaware!”
Warning of an “enemy at the gates,” Lewis continued: “This is our time… to make sure that we don’t cede this country and have my kids grow up in a communist hellhole.” The 1AP leader then fired up the crowd: “I need each of you to fight as hard as you can to ensure that that does not happen!”
Two years later, the words and actions of Lewis and 1st Amendment Praetorian, and the group’s intersection with the events that culminated in the storming of the Capitol, are at the center of a $100 million legal battle between 1AP and the New York Times — over whether the group was defamed by articles that, 1AP claims, falsely painted it as an “extremist paramilitary group that played a central role in storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021.”
The lawsuit against the Times, filed in early January, has not been reported previously. It denounces what 1AP calls the paper’s “egregious lies,” while denying that 1AP members “played any part in the attack.”
“Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages and punitive damages in the sum of $100,000,000.00,” the group writes in its suit.
The litigation is part of a pattern of high-dollar defamation suits brought by 1AP that are ostensibly attempting to clear its reputation. Seen in another light, the lawsuits present a vivid irony: They are filed by an organization that presents itself as a protector of first amendment rights, against parties who’ve leveraged their own freedom of the press to raise concerns about 1st Amendment Praetorian.
The court blitz complicates efforts to scrutinize 1AP, which the Jan. 6 Committee’s final report describes as a “paramilitary group,” and whose founder Lewis has touted the need for a “second American revolution.”
The name 1st Amendment Praetorian is a play on the imperial Praetorian Guard that provided security to Roman emperors. 1AP was founded in 2020 by Lewis, a decorated former Green Beret, who has said that 1AP is composed of “military, law enforcement, and intelligence community veterans.”
In legal documents, 1AP has described itself both as a “non-partisan” “civil liberties group” dedicated to the free expression of “every American,” and as a corporation founded to provide “pro bono security and protective services at grassroots events.” These documents depict a group that — though it provides protective security at political rallies — holds itself apart from the political fray.
Has 1AP been grievously misunderstood? Has this “civil rights” champion been unfairly judged by the company it kept? Was it out of bounds for the nation’s newspaper of record to write about 1AP in the context of Trump-aligned militant groups that stormed the Capitol?
The public record about 1AP is far from cut-and-dried. It reveals that government investigators had significant questions about 1AP’s activities in the buildup to, and the day of, Jan. 6.
In Nov. 2021, the House Jan. 6 Committee tweeted that it had issued subpoenas to “individuals and organizations linked to the violent attack on the Capitol,” including 1AP, the Proud Boys, and the Oath Keepers:
The subpoena letter to Lewis highlighted 1AP’s post-2020 election security work for “Stop the Steal” leader Ali Alexander, as well as for Trump loyalist Gen. Michael Flynn. “You have also claimed to be in contact with Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers, prior to Jan. 6,” the Committee wrote. (Rhodes — who never set foot inside the Capitol — has since been convicted of seditious conspiracy, along with five other members of that militia.)
The Jan 6. Committee then laid out a concerning fact pattern related to 1AP in the days leading up to the insurrection, writing:
On January 4, 2021, the 1st Amendment Praetorian Twitter account suggested that violence was imminent: “There may be some young National Guard Captains facing some very, very tough choices in the next 48 hours. Pray with every fiber of your being that their choices are Wise, Just, and Fearless.”
The subpoena indicated that 1AP didn’t just provide security at events — taking note of Lewis having been “listed as a speaker on a permit for the ‘Rally to Revival’” (This was the same Jan. 5 event where Lewis invoked Washinton’s pivotal 1776 river crossing.)
The subpoena quotes Lewis tweeting at 2:18 p.m. on Jan. 6 (during the attack on the Capitol): “Today is the day the true battles begin.” And it cites a tweet by the 1st Amendment Praetorian account two hours later: “The cost of Truth is Pain. The greater the Truth, the greater potential for pain!!”
In response to the Committee, Lewis’ attorney at the time sent a spirited letter, insisting that “the criminal conduct at the Capitol that day is antithetical to 1AP’s values,” adding: “To think that 1AP and its members played a role in the January 6 riot is absurd.”
The letter described 1AP members as “Civil Liberties Advocates” who seek to “secure the First Amendment rights of each and every American” whether they are “right, middle, left, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, politicians, public speakers, the media, etc.”
The lawyer insisted that on Jan. 6, “1AP’s activities consisted of providing personal security for a short period of time for a rally participant, but primarily in buttressing security for members of the main-stream media who were covering the rally at the Ellipse.” (This lawyer did not respond to an interview request.)
Deposed by the Committee in mid-April 2022, Lewis had a forum to set the record straight, under oath. The transcript, released in December, reveals Lewis refused to answer the Committee’s questions, citing his constitutional first and fifth amendment rights, as well as objecting to House process. Lewis rebuffed basic questions about 1AP, the provocative tweets included in the Committee subpoena, and his relationships with Ali Alexander, Alex Jones, Gen. Michael Flynn, Stewart Rhodes and others.
Perhaps the most intriguing question Lewis refused to answer?
Mr. Lewis, you’ve claimed to have driven Sidney Powell and Michael Flynn to the White House on December 18th, 2020. Were you involved in discussions with the White House regarding efforts to overturn the election?
In its final report, the Jan. 6 committee left myriad unanswered questions — including about 1AP. The report mentions 1AP only in passing, calling it a “paramilitary group” that coordinated with Rhodes on VIP security for Gen. Flynn at a Dec. 2020 religious rally called the “Jericho March.”
But a review of deposition transcripts the Committee released into the public record offers additional insight. The documents reveal that the Committee peppered witnesses, including Gen. Flynn, about whether 1AP members had entered the Capitol or communicated with those inside.
The Committee heard testimony from Dustin Stockton — a Tea Party organizer and former colleague of Cindy Chafian — that he’d seen Chafian and her husband working in a suite with 1AP members on the eve of Jan. 6 in the Willard hotel. Stockton testified that the “Chafian and 1AP room” had “a very military feel,” elaborating: “There were maps and… what looked like military-type comms with people on the computers, and earpiece.”
The committee also heard testimony from Oath Keepers about 1AP. One alleged 1AP had a role in “orchestrating” Stop the Steal rallies in advance of Jan.6. And two testified that 1AP members — though not Lewis himself — dined with Stewart Rhodes and a group of Oath Keepers at an Olive Garden in Northern Virginia on the night of Jan. 6, discussing the chaos at the Capitol.
One thing is for certain: By going on the legal offensive 1AP has differentiated itself from groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whose leaders have had to mount defenses to charges up to and including “seditious conspiracy.” By contrastits suit against the Times maintains, 1AP has been “thoroughly investigated by the FBI, and cleared of any wrongdoing.” (The Department of Justice would not discuss this claim.)
In its lawsuit against the Times, 1AP objects to four articles published last year. The suit decries what it calls the “defamatory gist” of the stories, claiming they inaccurately paint 1AP as “a right-wing paramilitary group, like high-profile extremist and far-right nationalist Proud Boys and Oath Keepers militia, that was involved in President Donald Trump’s plot to interfere with the certification of the 2020 vote count and the attack on the Capitol.”
The litigation insists that 1AP is: “not a violent, dangerous, paramilitary, extremist group” adding that “1AP played no role whatsoever in the attack on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021 and certainly did not storm the Capitol.”
As quoted by the suit, the articles were headlined:
“Another Far-Right Group Is Scrutinized About Its Efforts to Aid Trump”
“New Focus on How a Trump Tweet Incited Far-Right Groups Ahead of Jan. 6”
“Jan. 6 Panel Explores Links Between Trump Allies and Extremist Groups”
“Raskin Brings Expertise on Right-Wing Extremism to Jan. 6 Inquiry”
The suit quotes passages from the first article, dated Jan 3, 2022, that it describes as factual but “susceptible to a defamatory implication.” They include: “the group had men on the ground outside the building on Jan. 6 and others at the Willard Hotel, near some of Mr. Trump’s chief allies.” And: “at least one of Mr. Lewis’s lieutenants, Geoffrey Flohr, a former Michigan police officer, was outside the building walking the grounds and talking on his cellphone just before the riot erupted.” (Flohr did not respond to an interview request.)
The suit takes particular umbrage with a passage stating that a member of “1AP posted on Twitter…claiming he was in an ‘overwatch position’ in Arlington County, Va., where prosecutors say the Oath Keepers had placed at a hotel an armed ‘quick reaction force’ that was prepared to move into Washington if needed.”
The lawsuit counters: “Members of 1AP were staying at a Holiday Inn in Arlington (7.5 miles away from the Capital) because of the favorable room rates.” It insisted the that hotel had “no line of sight” to the Capitol, and that 1AP members “had no knowledge” of the Oath Keepers’ location or quick reaction force. It argues that Times implied a “connection between 1AP and the activities of the Oath Keepers that was knowingly false and defamatory.”
The 1AP also claims, without providing evidence, that the Times and reporter Alan Feuer were in league with the federal government: “Upon information and belief, in pushing the ‘domestic violent extremism’ narrative, NYT and Feuer were acting upon instructions and at the direction of one or more government agencies, including the Federal Bureau Investigation (‘FBI’).”
A spokesperson for the Times defended its journalism to Rolling Stone, insisting: “We reported accurately and responsibly, and plan to vigorously defend against this suit.” Lewis did not respond to interview requests from Rolling Stone. Emails to the attorney who filed the litigation, seeking comment about the suit, as well as about Jan. 6 Committee records, were not returned.
The suit against the Times is the third in a string of multi-million-dollar federal defamation suits filed by 1AP. The group sued Substack journalist and Twitter personality Seth Abramson in federal court in April 2022 for $25 million. That lawsuit claims Abramson used his Twitter account to falsely imply that 1AP and top members were: “involved in the January 6 insurrection, committed Federal crimes… or otherwise engaged or participated in criminal, dishonest, deceptive, immoral, unethical, unprofessional or improper conduct.”
The lawsuit insists that 1AP and its founder did not “aid and abet in insurrection or sedition.” The group further claims that “1AP never planned or schemed with Oath Keepers, Stop the Steal, 3 Percenters, or any other group.” The suits insist of Lewis, “He did not run, enter or participate in the activities of any ‘war room.’”
In a filing that seeks to have the case dismissed, Abramson claimed his tweets about 1st Amendment Praetorian were “First Amendment protected speech.”
In October, 1AP also filed a $50 million lawsuit against former Rep. Denver Riggleman and his publishers over a book the Republican authored about Jan. 6., The Breach. The litigation alleged Riggleman published “false statements, defamatory implications and insulting words,” adding that the “defamatory gist” was that “1AP participated in the attack on the United States Capitol…and otherwise engaged in coordinated acts of ‘domestic terrorism.’” (This lawsuit was “voluntarily dismissed” without explanation by 1AP in November.)
The lawsuits filed by 1AP assert that both the group and its founder have fallen on hard times. One claims Lewis is now “virtually unemployable,” despite a successful military career and an MBA degree, the adding that even security work for campaigns has dried up because misinformation about Jan. 6 has made “Lewis and 1AP toxic in the political world.“
1st Amendment Praetorian, one suit alleges, in even worse shape. ”1AP is now basically insolvent,” it states, “and completely destroyed.”
The claim by 1st Amendment Praetorian lawyers that the group is above-the-political-fray does not square easily with the public record of rhetoric and activism of founder Robert Patrick Lewis, which grounds him firmly on the MAGA right.
From the beginning, 1AP launched with a pungent political perspective. In a Sept. 2020 tweet thread announcing the creation of 1AP, Lewis railed against “Marxist & leftist politicians aiming to lock down total control” as well as “their tyrannical, Marxist subversive groups such as ANTIFA & BLM.”
Lewis also inveighed against the “corrupted Main Stream Media [that] does their best to… destroy the lives of any public or private citizen who dares step up to them or fight back against their narrative.” He insisted of 1AP: “We’ve drawn our line in the sand, and we, as a group, are not going to take or allow it anymore.”
In a similarly stark video — filmed in mid-November 2020, not long after Trump lost reelection — Lewis touted his work with “Stop the Steal” founder Ali Alexander, while warning viewers that 1AP had been picking up “intelligence” about a looming “Antifa Tet Offensive,” a reference to a surprise enemy attack during the Vietnam War.
Lewis did not simply ask for crowdfunded donations so his group could keep the peace and ensure all parties could exercise their constitutional rights. Rather, he gave a call to action to Trump supporters “to go to D.C. this weekend and participate in the Million MAGA March.” In stark contrast to 1AP’s assertions of non-partisanship, Lewis exhorted: “This is the time…when every man and woman needs to choose a side.”
In another politically charged video on Dec. 9, 2020, Lewis called Trump and Gen. Flynn his “personal heroes.” He added that Trump was “working towards the same goal as all of us — and that’s to Make America Great Again.” He blasted domestic enemies and what he described as China “sock puppets” whom he claimed had terrible aims: Namely, to make sure that “election fraud goes unchecked” so that “our republic is allowed to be destroyed from within.” Lewis vowed: “That’s something we’re not gonna allow sitting down.”
On Jan. 6, 1AP’s litigation insists, the group’s actions at the Ellipse were innocuous and focused on providing volunteer “personal security” — including to members of the press. One lawsuit describes how Lewis left Trump’s speech, “returned to his hotel room to change out of his suit, and spent the rest of the day at the Willard Hotel.” Citing the Lewis’ military record, that litigation insists: “the idea that Lewis…would participate in a coup to overthrow the United States Government” is “obviously preposterous.”
But well after the events of Jan. 6, Lewis continued to preach a message of upheaval similar to the one he delivered on the rainy stage at Freedom Plaza. In a May 30, 2021 video titled: “You say you want a revolution?” Lewis issued a call for a “second American revolution.” Lewis said he did not want it be “kinetic” — i.e. a violent civil war. But he insisted “it’s either going to be total annihilation and we’re going to let this country fall and our kids will never know freedom, or you take part in the revolution and we all band together and we all do what has to be done.”
Lewis encouraged like-minded Americans to move as one: “There’s a lot of people that say… ‘they’ll arrest whoever goes first,’” but he added: “If we are all together, they aren’t enough jail cells in the country.”