Fake News: Pelosi Does NOT Face 3 Years In Prison For Ripping Up State of Union Speech Copy

Fact Check

  • by: Lead Stories Staff

Could U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi face up to three years in prison for tearing up a copy of President Donald Trump's State of the Union address? No, that's not true: The law in question applies only to documents that are considered official government records - not copies of speeches, like the one Pelosi had in hand. Pelosi will not face charges under the federal law for ripping the speech in half.

The claim originated from a tweet (archived here) where it was posted by Charlie Kirk on Twitter on February 4, 2020, hours after Trump's State of the Union address. It opened:

US Code prohibits the destruction of government records

Nancy Pelosi may have just committed a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2071, Section 2071 (a) when she ripped up President Trump's State of the Union address

This violation is punishable by up to three years in prison


Users on social media saw this:

Charlie Kirk is the founder of Turning Point USA, a conservative group, and chairman of Students for Trump. The claim he put out on social media was soon spread by others.

Pro-Trump political operative Carl Higbie wrote "FYI: @SpeakerPelosi destroyed an official government document."

Higbie's followers on Twitter saw this:

Donald Trump Jr. chimed in, and this is what his followers saw:

And Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, told Fox News' Laura Ingraham that he would be filing ethics charges agaist Pelosi for ripping up her copy of the speech as Trump finished. On social media, he shared a copy of his letter to the House Committee on Ethics.

This is what Gaetz's followers saw:

The statue referenced by those promoting this claim reads as follows:

18 U.S. Code § 2071.Concealment, removal, or mutilation generally

(a)Whoever willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys, or attempts to do so, or, with intent to do so takes and carries away any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document, or other thing, filed or deposited with any clerk or officer of any court of the United States, or in any public office, or with any judicial or public officer of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

(b)Whoever, having the custody of any such record, proceeding, map, book, document, paper, or other thing, willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; and shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.

The papers Pelosi had in hand were never "filed or deposited with any clerk or officer of any court of the United States, or in any public office, or with any judicial or public officer of the United States." So, this federal statute has no bearing on what she did to the copy when she tore it in half, according to legal experts. What she ripped up was a copy of Trump's speech, not an official government record, the sort that would be filed in the National Archives - and the sort that this statute exists to protect.

Some legal experts weighed in with Politifact, which included the following:

'Her copy of the State of the Union address is not a government record or government property at all,' said Douglas Cox, professor of law at the City of New York University School of Law and an expert in the laws governing the preservation of government records. 'It is personal property.'

Under House rules, members of Congress are encouraged to preserve records or donate them to a research institution for historical study, Cox said. Unlike congressional committees, members are not legally required to hold onto their office's files.

'They can keep them private, they can destroy them, or they can rip them up,' he said.

This is in contrast to presidential records, which have been considered government property since the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and are supposed to be stored with the National Archives for safekeeping.

'The State of the Union is a presidential record, which must go to the National Archives under the Presidential Records Act,' Nourse said '(Pelosi) did not mutilate the record that is filed with the Archives.'

Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe was blunt about his feelings, telling Law & Crime:

'What a dumb idea! Not even Bill Barr would fall for that ludicrous misapplication of the federal law criminalizing mutilation of government records. The copy was the Speaker's own, it wasn't a government record to begin with, and her action was purely symbolic expression well within the protection of both the speech and debate clause and the first amendment.'

Non-lawyers, too, spoke out in response to Kirk's original tweet, including Grant Addison, deputy editor of the conservative Washington Examiner Magazine. This is what he had to say to Kirk:

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