Federal judge rules Barr, other officials have qualified immunity from suit over Lafayette Square protests
A federal judge on Monday dismissed the bulk of a set of lawsuits filed by protesters whom law enforcement had cleared by force from Lafayette Square during Black Live Matter demonstrations outside the White House last year.
District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled that former Attorney General William Barr and other current and former officials named in the suits are entitled to qualified immunity over their actions during the June 1, 2020, protests.
Friedrich, who was appointed to the federal district court in D.C. by former President Trump, ruled that the protesters’ allegations were not sufficient to overcome the significant legal protections afforded to federal officials.
The judge, however, ruled that parts of the four lawsuits could proceed, including the claims that local law enforcement officers had violated demonstrators’ First Amendment rights by violently clearing the area of peaceful protesters.
In light of court precedent regarding protesters’ constitutional rights, Friedrich wrote, “any reasonable officer would have been aware that it is a violation of foundational First Amendment rights to forcibly end a peaceful protest in a traditional public forum without any legitimate justification for doing so.”
That clear standard is sufficient to overcome those officers’ qualified immunity protections, she added.
The Trump administration officials and law enforcement officers were met with a flurry of lawsuits last year following the incident, which was broadcast live on television and allowed Trump to proceed with a photo op at a church across the street from the park.
The lawsuits were brought by individual protesters and groups such as Black Lives Matter D.C.
The incident came amid the widespread protests that erupted across the country last year following George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer in Minnesota.
Scott Michelman, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s D.C. chapter, which represented Black Lives Matter in the suit, blasted the decision on Monday and said that the legal team was evaluating whether to appeal.
“Today’s 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,” Michelman said in a statement. “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.”
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