Wednesday, 20 Nov 2019

CNN sues Trump to regain access for journalist

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) – CNN sued the Trump administration on behalf of reporter Jim Acosta on Tuesday (Nov 13), asking a court to restore Mr Acosta’s White House press pass after President Donald Trump suspended it last week.

The unusual lawsuit, an escalation of Mr Trump’s long-running war of words with CNN, seeks a judge’s intervention after Mr Trump banished Mr Acosta from the White House grounds for an indefinite period after a brief altercation between Mr Acosta and a White House press aide.

After a testy exchange between the President and the reporter, the unidentified press aide went up to Acosta to take a microphone out of his hands.

As a result, press secretary Sarah Sanders announced a few hours later that the White House had revoked Mr Acosta’s “hard pass”, which enables reporters to enter and leave the grounds each day.

Ms Sanders called Mr Acosta’s alleged behaviour “unacceptable” and cited Mr Acosta’s encounter with the press aide as the basis for yanking his credential.

She tweeted an apparently doctored video of the incident.

CNN filed suit in US District Court in Washington.

“We have asked this court for an immediate restraining order requiring the pass be returned to Jim, and will seek permanent relief as part of this process,” the network said in a statement released on Tuesday morning.

Late on Tuesday afternoon, the judge in the case, Judge Timothy Kelly, ordered the White House and the other defendants to respond to CNN’s motion for a temporary restraining order by 11am on Wednesday.

He set a hearing on the restraining order – which would temporarily restore Mr Acosta’s press credential, pending the outcome of a trial – for 3pm on Wednesday.

Legal experts say the network’s chances of winning in court are favourable. Although a court would probably give the President and Secret Service the benefit of the doubt if they barred a reporter due to security threats, the First Amendment protects journalists against arbitrary restrictions by government officials.

“I think it’s a really strong lawsuit,” Mr Floyd Abrams, a noted First Amendment lawyer, told CNN on Sunday. “I think (CNN) should sue, and if it’s not about Acosta, this is going to happen again… So whether it’s CNN suing or the next company suing, someone’s going to have to bring a lawsuit, and whoever does is going to win” unless the White House can show that Mr Acosta is violent and disruptive.

The suit names CNN and Mr Acosta as plaintiffs. Mr Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Bill Shine, Ms Sanders and the US Secret Service are named as defendants.

It alleges a violation of the First Amendment, a violation of the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees due process in government actions, and a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

It asks for the immediate restoration of Mr Acosta’s credential, or restoration pending a hearing before a “neutral” arbiter.

In a defiant statement, Ms Sanders called the suit “more grandstanding from CNN” and said the White House will “vigorously” defend itself.

“CNN, who has nearly 50 additional hard pass holders, and Mr Acosta is no more or less special than any other media outlet or reporter with respect to the First Amendment,” she said.

She made no mention of a physical altercation between Mr Acosta and the press aide – the original reason the White House cited for the suspension – and instead said the suspension was because Mr Acosta would not yield to other reporters.

“After Mr. Acosta asked the President two questions – each of which the president answered – he physically refused to surrender a White House microphone to an intern, so that other reporters might ask their questions,” Ms Sanders said.

“This was not the first time this reporter has inappropriately refused to yield to other reporters… The First Amendment is not served when a single reporter, of more than 150 present, attempts to monopolise the floor.”

Disputes have occasionally flared over which members of the press corps are qualified to receive a “hard pass”. But Mr Trump’s action appears to be unprecedented; there’s no record of a President revoking such a pass from a reporter because he didn’t like the questions the reporter asked.

During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the Secret Service denied a credential to reporter Robert Sherrill of the Nation magazine.

The agency said Mr Sherrill, who had been in a fistfight with one of Mr Johnson’s campaign aides, was a physical threat to the President. Mr Sherrill sued and eventually won in 1977, though he declined to apply for a pass afterwards, according to journalist George Condon.

Another possible parallel: A federal judge last year struck down Mr Trump’s blocking of critics on Twitter.

She ruled that the First Amendment prevented him from denying access to presidential statements due to a would-be follower’s opinions and views.

The same principle applies in the Acosta case, said Mr Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which brought the Twitter suit last year.

“The government cannot exclude reporters from (the White House) because of their views,” said Mr Jaffer. “Once the government created a general right of access it cannot selectively withdraw it based on viewpoint. Viewpoint is not a criterion that establishes a media organisation’s right to be at a news briefing.”

CNN’s lawsuit, he added, “is critical to preserve the media’s ability to ask hard questions and hold the government accountable… It would be intolerable to let this kind of thing go unchallenged. Other reporters would end up hesitating before asking sharp questions, the White House would be able to use the threat of similar revocations for critical coverage, and media coverage of the White House would be distorted because of fear of official retaliation.”

Other journalists have been widely supportive of Mr Acosta since Mr Trump pushed him out last week.

In a statement on Tuesday, the White House Correspondents’ Association’s president, Mr Olivier Knox, said the organisation “strongly supports” CNN in regaining its access.

He said the revocation of Mr Acosta’s credential was a “disproportionate reaction” to the news conference incident.

“The President of the United States should not be in the business of arbitrarily picking the men and women who cover him,” Mr Knox said.

Others have urged even stronger action in response to Mr Trump’s retaliation against Acosta.

Mr Richard Tofel, the president of ProPublica, the non-profit investigative news organisation, suggested in an interview that journalists band together and walk out of the White House press room.

“If favourable coverage is the price of operating within the (White House) gates, then we can cover it from outside the gates,” said Mr Tofel, a lawyer who was once an intern in the White House press office.

“I think that, as a matter of press freedom, the press corps in the room should say, ‘If you’ve redefined the rules to hand out passes only to those whose coverage you don’t object to, we’re all leaving.’ This isn’t principally a legal question. It’s a question of editorial independence.”

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