Ryan Kelley, Republication candidate for Governor, attends a Freedom Rally in support of First Amendment rights and to protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer, outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on May 15, 2021. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)
Ryan Kelley, Republication candidate for Governor, attends a Freedom Rally in support of First Amendment rights and to protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer, outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on May 15, 2021. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley pleaded not guilty Thursday for his actions during the insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, when he says he and other supporters of former President Donald Trump were simply exercising their rights to free speech. A number of people were threatened and at least seven people died at the riot.

MICHIGAN—Ryan Kelley, one of five Republicans vying for a chance to run against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in November, had a brief hearing in federal court on Thursday, weeks after the real estate broker was arrested at his home in Allendale and charged with several misdemeanors for his role in the riot.

Except to plead not guilty to all charges, Kelley said little during the hearing. But at a gubernatorial debate on Wednesday night, Kelley explained that he and others at the US Capitol were unhappy with the 2020 presidential election, when Trump lost to President Joe Biden, and decided to speak out.

“That was a First Amendment activity by a majority of those people, myself included,” Kelley said. “We were there protesting the government because we don’t like the results of the 2020 election, the process of how it happened. And we have that First Amendment right. And that’s what 99% of the people were there for that day.”

Kelley is accused of disruptive conduct, injuring public property and entering restricted space without permission—all misdemeanors that could potentially lead to steep fines and a one-year prison sentence.

Federal investigators said Kelley was recorded on video outside the U.S. Capitol on the day of the insurrection, repeatedly waving to the crowd and directing them toward stairs leading into the building. He used his phone to “film the crowd assaulting and pushing past U.S. Capitol police officers” and was in a crowd that climbed stairs to a Capitol entrance after causing police to retreat, the FBI said.

Prior to his arrest, Kelley was a little-known candidate in a field of five Republicans vying for the GOP nomination on Aug. 2. He has since said that he believes the arrest and accompanying publicity has helped increase his name recognition and gain supporters. Kelley also has questioned the timing of the charges, which were filed about a year and a half after the Capitol riot. He has claimed that they are politically motivated and that he is being targeted by the Biden administration and others on the left.

With no prior experience in elected office, Kelley decided to run for governor after leading protests against Whitmer and restrictions she imposed during the coronavirus pandemic. They included a rally at the Michigan Statehouse in Lansing, where heavily armed militias entered the building.

‘Gander Editor Kyle Kaminski contributed to this report.