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Federal Officials Can't Be Sued For Clearing Protesters Near White House, Judge Says

Then-President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John's Church across from Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, 2020.
Then-President Donald Trump holds a Bible outside St. John's Church across from Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, 2020.

A federal judge has dismissed claims that former White House officials conspired to forcibly remove peaceful protesters last year from Washington, D.C.'s Lafayette Square so that then-President Donald Trump could pose for a photo holding a Bible at a nearby church.

The lawsuit stems from June 1, 2020, when U.S. Park Police and National Guard troops dispersed a largely peaceful gathering of Black Lives Matter protesters from the square near the White House using tear gas and pepper spray.

Trump, accompanied by then-Attorney General William Barr, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strode to St. John's Church across from the square, where the photo was taken.

In four overlapping suits, Black Lives Matter and three other plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union alleged that the former president, Barr and other Trump administration officials conspired to violate the civil rights of the protesters.

Last month, the Department of Justice asked U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich to dismiss the lawsuits.

On Monday, Friedrich called the plaintiffs' claims speculative and dismissed the allegations against Barr, Gregory Monahan of the U.S. Park Police and other federal officials.

In her ruling, Friedrich, a Trump appointee, wrote that the plaintiffs had failed to prove an agreement or plan to violate the rights of the protesters.

"These allegations, taken as true, do not show sufficient 'events, conversations, or documents indicating an agreement or meeting of the minds' amongst the defendants to violate [plaintiffs'] rights based on [their] membership in a protected class,' " she said.

Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church on June 1, 2020. Walking behind Trump  are then-Attorney General William Barr (from left), then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Patrick Semansky / AP
Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church on June 1, 2020. Walking behind Trump are then-Attorney General William Barr (from left), then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The ACLU had said that the forcible clearing of the square could have a chilling effect on free speech, a contention that Friedrich also rejected.

"The plaintiffs allege that they continue to demonstrate in or near Lafayette Square and that they fear law enforcement officers may disperse or attack them," she wrote.

"The plaintiffs' primary basis for these fears are the alleged events of June 1, 2020 and President Trump's social media posts before and after the clearing of Lafayette Square," she continued. "Significantly, the plaintiffs do not rely on any alleged law or policy as the basis for this claimed risk of future harm."

The judge also ruled that Barr, Monahan and others are immune from civil suits and cannot be sued for damages.

In a tweet, the ACLU of the District of Columbia said the ruling not only represents "a stunning rejection of our constitutional values and protestors' First Amendment rights, but it opens the door for future violence at the hands of the federal government and effectively places federal officials above the law."

One claim against the federal defendants survives: Friedrich said that the plaintiffs can still challenge continued restrictions on access to Lafayette Square because they have "plausibly alleged an ongoing injury."

"To this day, over a year after the events of June 1, Lafayette Square remains subject to heightened restrictions that periodically limit protestors' access to the Square," she said. "Despite the change in Administrations, the federal defendants have not met the high bar of showing that this claim has been mooted by subsequent events."

In asking for the suits to be dismissed, Justice Department trial attorney David Cutler said last month that the police acted lawfully and that the president's security is of "paramount" government interest, according to The Washington Post.

This month, the Interior Department's inspector general, Mark Greenblatt, concluded that the U.S. Park Police did not clear the protesters from the square specifically for Trump's photo-op.

"[T]he evidence established that relevant USPP officials had made those decisions and had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day," Greenblatt wrote in a statement.

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