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PCJF sues D.C. and federal government to force release of documents related to turnover of historic quintessential public space
Defending the right to protest, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund has gone to court regarding the “deals” reached by federal and District of Columbia officials with the Trump Organization that appear to privatize portions of Pennsylvania Avenue, one of the country's most historically significant sites for free speech and public assembly.
A section of Pennsylvania Avenue, a National Historic Site that runs from the White House to the Capitol, will be turned over for the use of the Trump Organization along with the large (7,000 square foot) previously public plaza that features an 1889 Benjamin Franklin statue and that abuts the soon-to-open Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office, as well as a portion of the sidewalk space abutting the Avenue.
The turnover of these spaces creates a “buffer zone” that appears to suppress or extinguish free speech in proximity to the building leased by Trump, restricting access to priority or exclusive use of the Trump Organization.
For over five months, through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, the PCJF has sought disclosure of information regarding negotiations, agreements, and the terms and conditions of restrictions on, or exclusions of, free speech activities and public access to these spaces. The PCJF has issued public records requests to the General Services Administration, the National Park Service/Department of the Interior, and the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department and Mayor’s Office seeking communications, emails, requests, applications and agreements, as well as any evaluations of the effect of imposed restrictions on public access to public space and the exercise of First Amendment rights. The agencies and entities in whose possession this information remains have refused to produce requested information despite a legal obligation to make such information public.
Faced with stonewalling by these government agencies, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund has now filed two lawsuits against both the D.C. and federal governments for violating Freedom of Information Act statutes by their failure to turn over requested documents and communications, and seeking disgorgement of the withheld materials. The lawsuits have been filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the D.C. Superior Court.
In addition to its impact on the public’s ability to engage in First Amendment activities and assembly, the loss of this public space will dramatically affect signature local events, such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and other festivals that take place annually and impact the cultural life of the city.
PCJF Executive Director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard said: “The public spaces of Pennsylvania Avenue, including the sidewalks and plaza abutting the Trump Hotel, belong to the American people not to Donald Trump. Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the most significant places in the United States for the exercise of free speech rights. It is critical to democracy to challenge Trump’s land grab of America’s Main Street. Allowing Trump to privatize public space on Pennsylvania Avenue also puts all similar public space in jeopardy. These public spaces have been consecrated by the expressions of democracy and dissent. That ground may now be pulled out from underneath the feet of those who wish to engage in protest in proximity to the Trump International Hotel, owned by a presidential candidate whose expression of openly racist and sexist views has been accompanied by an extraordinary hostility to the First Amendment. From his calls to have protestors beaten to his revocation of press credentials for any unfavorable coverage, the threat he poses to free speech has been made evident.”
PCJF Legal Director Carl Messineo said: “The new Trump International Hotel is a beacon for protest. Trump’s marriage of capital interests, political views, presidential ambitions and reality TV showmanship invites protest, free speech and assembly on the public spaces in proximity to the Trump Hotel. In 1965, Pennsylvania Avenue was declared a National Historic Site because of its unique role in the Nation’s history for the great parades, protests, national celebrations, and expressions of free speech and dissent that have historically occurred on its venerated public spaces. Trump may not choose to set up shop on Pennsylvania Avenue and then build a wall or insulate himself from public assembly and protest. These spaces belong to the people and they intend to exercise their rights there.”