April 13, 2024

The National Archives Building – Washington DC, USA.

Hisham Ibrahim | Photodisc | Getty Images

Several abortion opponents who were ordered to remove or cover clothing with “pro-life” messages during a visit to the National Archives Museum have agreed to settle their lawsuit against the federal agency, a new court filing says.

The settlement, which includes a total payment of $10,000 and measures to prevent the situation from happening again, comes nearly 11 months after National Archives security confronted the plaintiffs about anti-abortion messages on clothing after they attended the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20.

“The plaintiffs should not have been asked to remove or cover articles of clothing expressing their religious and other beliefs, and [the National Archives and Records Administration] regrets that this happened,” says a consent order filed by parties in U.S. District Court in Washington on Monday.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, which represented NARA, declined to comment on the settlement and a related agreement to dismiss the suit. CNBC has requested comment from the plaintiffs’ lawyers and NARA.

A separate, similar lawsuit on the same free-speech grounds is still pending against the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, whose security staff likewise ordered students, parents and chaperones from a Catholic school in South Carolina to remove or cover “pro-life” clothing during a Jan. 20 visit.

An effort to negotiate a settlement through mediation in that case ended in September without a deal, putting the lawsuit back on track for trial, court records show. The federally funded Smithsonian Institution operates the Air and Space Museum.

Both the National Archives and the Air and Space Museum apologized for the incidents after the suits were filed in February by lawyers from the American Center for Law & Justice, a conservative, Christian organization.

The museums at that time said that security staff were wrong and in violation of the museums’ policies for objecting to the plaintiffs’ clothing.

The incidents occurred seven months after the Supreme Court overturned its ruling in the case Roe v. Wade, which for a half century had ensured a federal right to abortion.

The National Archives, which, like the Air and Space Museum is along the Mall in Washington, houses the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and other historically significant documents.

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The plaintiffs’ lawsuit accused the National Archives and Records Administration of violating their rights under the Constitution’s First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, and the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees citizens equal protection under the laws.

Two of the plaintiffs, a Michigan woman identified as Tamara R., and her then-17-year-old daughter L.R., were visiting the archives as part of a Catholic high school group. The other two plaintiffs are Virginia resident Wendilee Walpole Lassiter, and Terrie Kallal, who lives in Illinois.

Guards separately told the plaintiffs, among other things, that their clothing was “offensive,” that it would “incite others” and was “disturbing the peace,” the suit says.

NARA will pay $10,000 to the plaintiffs as part of the settlement, as well as their attorney’s fees and other legal expenses, the filing Monday shows.

NARA also agreed to show the plaintiffs and their lawyers surveillance video footage from the National Archives from the Jan. 20 incident. The plaintiffs cannot make copies of the footage under terms of the deal.

As part of the settlement, NARA also agreed in a consent order to stipulate that its “policy expressly allows all visitors to wear t-shirts, hats, buttons, etc., that display protest language, including religious and political speech.”

“NARA regrets the events of January 20, 2023, and has reminded all NARA’s contract security officers at NARA’s facilities across the country of the rights of visitors and of the policy,” that consent order says.

The agency agreed to provide all contract security vendors, as well as NARA staff who interact with the public, a copy of the consent order, and to give two of the plaintiffs, L.R. and Kallal, personal tours of the museum, and a “personal apology” on the tours, the order says.

An affidavit filed Monday by NARA’s chief of management and administration indicates that security guards employed by Allied Universal Services, a vendor contracted by NARA, were responsible for the incident at the museum.

The affidavit said that no NARA official or employee directed the guards to take action against the plaintiffs, and that since then “AUS removed the security supervisor who was at fault from working at NARA.”

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