DETROIT – Nine members of a Michigan militia will be released from jail pending trial after a federal judge on Monday criticized the government’s claim they had conspired to overthrow the U.S. government.

The decision is a significant defeat for federal authorities, who spoke in tough and triumphant terms after arresting members of a southern Michigan group called the Hutaree in March and charging them with conspiracy to commit sedition and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.

The government “need not wait until people are killed before it arrests conspirators,” U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts said. “But the defendants are also correct: Their right to engage in hate-filled, venomous speech is a right that deserves First Amendment protection.”

Roberts ruled only whether to keep the eight men and one woman in jail until trial.

In court papers and testimony before Roberts, prosecutors and an FBI agent claimed the Hutaree are violent, anti-government zealots who plotted to kill police officers in an effort to spark an uprising that would take down the federal government. Instead, the judge said the rambling, scornful recorded conversations offered as evidence didn’t prove the group poses an imminent threat.

“Discussions about killing local law enforcement officers — and even discussions about killing members of the judicial branch of government — do not translate to conspiring to overthrow, or levy war against, the United States government,” Roberts said.

She said the defendants in custody can be released until trial under strict conditions, including electronic monitoring. They won’t actually be freed until today.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Waterstreet asked the judge late Monday to freeze the release until the U.S. Justice Department could be consulted about an appeal, citing the fatal shooting Monday of a Detroit police officer in a drug house.

That slaying had no connection to the Hutaree, but prosecutors have said the militia’s plans included killing a police officer and then bombing the funeral to increase the death toll.

Defense attorney William Swor, who represents militia leader David Stone Sr., called Waterstreet’s argument “outrageous.”