PEN America Withdraws Lawsuit Against White House

The organization PEN America on Thursday dropped a lawsuit alleging that the previous administration violated the First Amendment by retaliating against journalists who criticized former President Donald Trump.

In exchange, the current administration abandoned its appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Lorna Schofield's March 2020 decision to allow the lawsuit to move forward.

The organization framed the settlement as a victory, stating that Schofield's decision “forms a pathbreaking precedent providing accountability for officials who use the power of government to exact reprisals against the press.”

But that March 2020 decision -- while potentially carrying influence with other judges -- doesn't create the kind of legal precedent that is dispositive in future disputes.

The settlement puts an end to a lawsuit brought by the journalist advocacy group in October 2018, when it alleged in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Manhattan that Trump targeted media outlets and journalists, based on their criticism of him.

PEN America later amended its complaint to include allegations surrounding the White House's highly publicized November 2018 battle with CNN's Jim Acosta -- a member of the organization.

After a contentious press conference that November, government officials revoked Acosta's press credentials. A federal judge subsequently ordered the government to restore Acosta's press pass.

PEN America sought a declaratory judgment that Trump violated the constitution by retaliating against journalists based on their viewpoints, and by threatening the media in a way that could chill free speech.

The group also sought an injunction prohibiting the federal government from taking action against media organizations and journalists for their criticism of the White House.

Schofield ruled last March that PEN America was entitled to pursue its request for a declaratory judgment. But she said the organization could not proceed with its request for an injunction, given that Trump has “discretionary authority” over matters like security clearances.

“The President has significant discretion over White House press credentials and reporters’ access to the White House and Air Force One,” Shofield wrote. “Issuing an injunction to the President would impede his discretionary authority in these realms, and more generally, risk improper judicial encroachment on the executive branch.”

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