CNN  — 

An Atlanta-area judge on Thursday upheld the criminal indictment against former President Donald Trump in Georgia, rejecting the argument that Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election were protected under the First Amendment.

“The defense has not presented, nor is the Court able to find, any authority that the speech and conduct alleged is protected political speech,” Fulton County Superior Court Judge Scott McAfee wrote in his order.

McAfee’s ruling is the latest step inching the state racketeering case against Trump forward. But while Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has suggested she would be ready to go to trial as soon as August, the judge has still not set a trial date for Trump or his remaining 14 co-defendants in the Peach State.

The decision comes as some of Trump’s fellow defendants consider seeking a gag order against Willis after she has made public comments about the case.

McAfee’s refusal to scrap the indictment comes as the free speech defense has repeatedly fallen short in pretrial wrangling in election meddling cases.

“After interpreting the indictment’s language liberally in favor of the State as required at this pretrial stage, the Court finds that the Defendants’ expressions and speech are alleged to have been made in furtherance of criminal activity and constitute false statements knowingly and willfully made in matters within a government agency’s jurisdiction which threaten to deceive and harm the government,” McAfee wrote in his order issued Thursday.

McAfee previously rejected similar First Amendment challenges from other defendants in the Georgia case. In the federal election interference case, Judge Tanya Chutkan also heard – and rejected – the argument that Trump’s actions should be considered protected political speech.

The Fulton County district attorney’s office declined to comment on Thursday’s order from McAfee.

Trump’s Georgia lawyer Steve Sadow said in a statement that Trump and other defendants “respectfully disagree” with the ruling and will explore their options.

“It is significant that the court’s ruling made clear that defendants were not foreclosed from again raising their ‘as-applied challenges at the appropriate time after the establishment of a factual record,’” Sadow’s statement read.

At a hearing on the First Amendment issue last month, Sadow argued that Trump’s attempts to upend the Georgia election results were “core political speech.”

“What do we have here?” Sadow asked. “We have election speech, which is ‘protected’ from government restriction.”

Donald Wakeford, a Fulton County prosecutor, said the First Amendment arguments should be heard by a jury rather than decided in pre-trial motions. He also insisted Trump was charged because his election lies were “employed as part of criminal activity with criminal intentions.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.