Fact-Checks and Updates on Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on October 21, 2020 | Last updated on August 10, 2021

The story of the conspiracy to riot charges filed against anti-war protestors in Chicago in the summer of 1968 has been told numerous times and in numerous formats. The latest is from Aaron Sorkin's "The Trial of the Chicago 7." Netflix began streaming the movie on October 16.

Some Liberties With the Facts

As with any dramatic retelling, the movie takes some liberties with the historical account and timeline. What it didn't have to make up, however, was the surprising antics of the defendants, who did indeed mock the judge, eat candy during the trial, and try to disrupt the proceedings as much as possible. Nor did it invent the most shocking part of the trial, when Judge Julius Hoffman ordered Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, to be bound and gagged in his chair after refusing to sit quietly.

How did Judge Hoffman justify this? Well, it really can't be justified. But former prosecutor for the case Dick Schultz (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) told the Chicago Tribune that, in his view, Bobby Seale's attorneys masterfully handled the situation, intentionally withdrawing from the case so that Seale could repeatedly argue he was being denied his Constitutional right to representation. According to Schultz, both Seale and William Kunstler were aware of a case months earlier that held that unruly defendants could not be removed from their own trial and that Seale was strategically engaged in disruptive activity.

Of course, that's just one perspective, and a certain amount of skepticism may be warranted. Schultz offered some other interesting explanations of the trial in the Chicago Tribune article. For example, he said he was proud of the prosecution and the case and believed from the outset he had enough evidence to convict under the Anti-Riot Act. He is portrayed in the film as a somewhat reluctant participant.

Was Judge Hoffman Really That Bad?

Judge Julius Hoffman is the villain of the film, portrayed brilliantly by Frank Langella. Langella plays the judge as inept as he is uncaring and prejudiced. Judge Hoffman was indeed known for running a strict courtroom. Further, his numerous citations for contempt of court and harsh sentences in the case were all overturned. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals noted in its decision overturning these sentences that Judge Hoffman's demeanor was biased against the defendants from the start.

According to Dick Schultz, there was some exaggeration in the film. However, Judge Hoffman did really make no secret of his dislike for the protestors on trial. That alone was enough to overturn his sentencing, according to the Seventh Circuit. Judge Hoffman awarded the maximum sentences for all counts, including years-long sentences for contempt of court.

To be fair to Judge Hoffman, he was the first judge above the Mason-Dixon line to uphold anti-segregation laws in schools. And many of the long-running antics of the defendants were toned down for the film. Still, it appears that Judge Hoffman really did get personally invested in the outcome of the case and engaged in problematic behavior throughout.

Is the Anti-Riot Act Still Around?

In a climactic scene in the film, Sacha Baren Cohen offers the opinion that under the Anti-Riot Act, Abraham Lincoln could have been charged with a federal crime for what he said in his inaugural address. The eight men initially charged were alleged to have violated the newly created Anti-Riot Act. Part of the Civil Rights Act, this statute is still good law and prohibits people from crossing state lines:

  • To incite a riot
  • To organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot
  • To aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in or carrying on a riot or committing any act of violence in furtherance of a riot.

With protests rocking the country in much the same way as 1968, the Fourth Circuit has had occasion to revisit the long-dormant law, which the Supreme Court has upheld as a constitutional restriction on free speech. According to the Fourth Circuit, at least, some provisions in the Anti-Riot Act are overbroad. You can read about the details of the case on our Fourth Circuit blog.

Courtroom Drama

Creative license aside, The Trial of the Chicago 7 mostly sticks to the basics of the case, and for good reason. The defendants, the charged atmosphere of the trial, and the attention it was paid even in 1968 make it one of the most remarkable criminal trials of the 20th Century.

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