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Literary group: Trump suit settlement protects journalists

February 18, 2021 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) — A literary group that sued then-President Donald Trump with claims that he repeatedly violated the First Amendment in his dealings with the media announced a settlement with the government Thursday that it said will protect journalists in the future.

PEN America, a human rights organization of writers, literary and media professionals, said the deal leaves intact a judge’s ruling upholding its standing to challenge Trump’s threats and acts of retaliation against journalists and the media.

The organization sued Trump in Manhattan federal court in 2018 on behalf of its 7,500 members, saying he is not free to use the power and authority of the U.S. government to punish and stifle the press.

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Government lawyers notified a judge of the settlement, without elaborating on its terms. A spokesperson for government lawyers declined comment.

In October, Judge Lorna G. Schofield had allowed the government to appeal whether declaratory relief can be awarded against a sitting president in his official capacity for his discretionary conduct. Weeks later, Trump lost his quest for re-election to the current president, Joe Biden.

Last March, Schofield had refused to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the nonprofit organization could sue over claims that Trump selectively barred access to the White House and threatened to revoke press credentials or security clearances of ex-government officials whose commentary he disliked.

Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive, said in a release that the lawsuit and settlement “represents an important win for free speech, a free press, and the First Amendment.”

“The outcome is clear: Not even the president of the United States can invoke the power of government to threaten members of the press based on their coverage,” she said. “While a president has First Amendment rights, he or she does not have license to use the authority of the office to menace critical journalists or punish their coverage.”

Kristy Parker, a former Justice Department lawyer who worked on the lawsuit, said Trump left behind “a toxic anti-media streak” in the U.S. Parker works at Protect Democracy, which opposes efforts to form a more authoritarian government in the U.S.

“We’d be naive to think that no future political candidates would consider emulating him, which is why this case was such a crucial marker. Would-be imitators now know that this anti-First Amendment behavior will be challenged and stand a strong chance of being held to account,” Parker said.

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PEN America noted in its release that its members include Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief domestic correspondent, whose White House press credentials were temporarily revoked in November 2018 by the Trump administration.

“Our First Amendment rights are always worth defending,” Acosta said in the release. “And it’s in all our interests as Americans that we maintain a strong and independent free press in the United States.”

In her March ruling, Schofield cited the action against Acosta as boosting the credibility of the group’s claims, noting the organization alleged Trump “punished Mr. Acosta publicly in order to chill his speech and the press corps.”

She noted Trump had made an example of Acosta by stripping his press credentials after he asked critical questions about the administration, barring him from White House press briefings and directing his press secretary to warn other reporters they would face similar consequences.