Are Russian trolls protected by the First Amendment?

Not exactly, but the First Amendment might make life difficult for government officials who want to block, deter, or at least diminish Russian propaganda during the 2018 election. In his prosecutions of Russian agents, Robert Mueller apparently will rely on statutes that prohibit foreigners from meddling with American elections. But the First Amendment protects speech, and while it doesn’t protect fraud (the focus of the indictment), the core activities of the trolls—the use of social media to propagate support for Donald Trump and opposition to Hillary Clinton—fall firmly under the First Amendment umbrella.

This may not save the Russian agents. In addition to engaging in some clearly fraudulent behavior, as non-citizens located outside the United States, they probably cannot claim First Amendment protection. But they can’t be sent to jail in any event because they lie outside the reach of American power. Russians in the United States, and Trump supporters who don’t mind spreading Russian propaganda, are protected by the First Amendment. In sum, the First Amendment protects propagandists whom U.S. authorities could reach, and national borders protect propagandists whom the First Amendment does not protect. The U.S. government is helpless.

There is another twist. Supreme Court doctrine recognizes that the First Amendment protects one’s right as an “addressee” to receive mail and other communications free of government interference. This means any law that sought to blunt the force of Russian propaganda by controlling its distribution by internet companies is unconstitutional. In the wake of the 2016 election, the idea that an unfettered “marketplace of ideas” is always good for the public lies in ruins. If the now twin danger of Russian and terrorist propaganda over social media is at least recognized, it will take a long time to overcome the constitutional legacy.