Washington — A federal judge has dismissed a majority of the claims filed by activists and civil liberties groups who accused the Trump administration of violating the civil rights of protesters who were forcefully removed by law enforcement from a park near the White House before then-President Trump walked to a nearby church to take a photo.
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich said Monday the claims in the suit, which alleged that Mr. Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr had conspired to violate the rights of protesters last June, were speculative and it was premature for the court to conclude whether the actions of law enforcement officers were justified.
Friedrich dismissed the claims against Barr and other federal officials, including the acting U.S. Park Police chief, Gregory Monahan, finding there wasn't sufficient evidence to prove there was any agreement or plan to violate the rights of the protesters. The judge also said the law gives them immunity in civil litigation.
In a 51-page decision, the judge did allow the claims against the Metropolitan Police Department and the Arlington Police Department to proceed. Their officers were involved in clearing the park.
The lawsuit stemmed from one of the most high-profile moments of the Trump presidency, when federal and local law enforcement aggressively forced a group of largely peaceful protesters back from Lafayette Square outside of the White House firing smoke bombs and pepper balls into the crowd to disperse the group. Officers were seen shoving protesters and journalists as they pushed the crowd back.
Barr has said he met with other law enforcement officials earlier that day to review a plan to extend the security perimeter around the White House to protect federal agents after days of unrest in Washington following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.
After the crowd was forcefully dispersed, Mr. Trump, followed by an entourage of his most senior aides - including Barr - along with Secret Service agents and reporters, walked over to St. John's Church, a landmark building where every president has prayed, which had been damaged a day earlier in a protest fire.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the group Black Lives Matter D.C. and individual protesters who were present by the ACLU of D.C., the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the law firm of Arnold & Porter.
The legal director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia, Scott Michelman, said in a statement to CBS News that that the ruling "essentially gives the federal government a green light to use violence, including lethal force against demonstrators, as long as federal officials claim to be protecting national security.
"Under today's decision, Lafayette Square is now a Constitution-free zone when it comes to the actions of federal officials. Not only is this decision a stunning rejection of our constitutional values and protestors' First Amendment rights, but it effectively places federal officials above the law," the statement continued.
Arthur Ago, the director of the criminal justice project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement that the ruling set an "extremely dangerous precedent" and that former officials like Barr were "getting off scot-free."
"We will always stand up for the rights of those peacefully demonstrating for racial justice, and this ruling sends the wrong message for police accountability efforts at a time when it is needed the most," Ago said.