CNN has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration after the White House suspended CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta’s press credentials.
The White House took away Acosta’s “hard pass,” which allows credentialed reporters to attend White House events without obtaining daily access permission, after a contentious news conference last week in which President Trump called Acosta a “rude, terrible person.”
CNN’s complaint, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, calls the move “an unabashed attempt to censor the press and exclude reporters from the White House who challenge and dispute the President’s point of view.”
“While the suit is specific to CNN and Acosta, this could have happened to anyone,” CNN said in a statement to NPR. “If left unchallenged, the actions of the White House would create a dangerous chilling effect for any journalist who covers our elected officials.”
The lawsuit against Trump, senior White House officials and the Secret Service argues that suspending Acosta’s press credentials violates his First Amendment rights to free speech and his Fifth Amendment right to due process. It demands that his credentials be immediately restored or, if not, that the matter be heard by a neutral arbiter. It’s also seeking a declaration that the decision to suspend the credentials was unconstitutional.
Trump has repeatedly criticized CNN’s coverage of his administration, criticism that he has leveraged at many other mainstream news outlets. He has previously described “much of the Media” as the “Enemy of the People.”
At the tense Nov. 7 briefing, Acosta asked the president about his characterization of a migrant “caravan” moving through Mexico as an “invasion” and about possible indictments in the Russia investigation.
At one point, a woman later identified by the White House as an intern reached across Acosta in an apparent attempt to take the microphone from him. He said, “Pardon me, ma’am,” and did not release the microphone. (You can watch the video of the heated exchange here, posted by C-SPAN.)
Initially, when the White House said it was suspending Acosta’s credential, it said it would “never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern.”
That’s a characterization Acosta and CNN strenuously dispute. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted out a link to a video to back up her claim that Acosta physically fended off the female staffer. Multiple media reviews by such outfits as The Washington Post, The Associated Press and the social media company Storyful (owned by News Corp., which is financially controlled by the Murdoch family) concluded that the video Sanders cited had been doctored.
In an interview with Fox News Sunday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway denied that the video had been altered but then said it had been “sped up” and that “they do it all the time in sports to see if there’s actually a first down or a touchdown.”
CNN said its president, Jeff Zucker, had sought to resolve the conflict but could not get his messages answered by Trump, who had been a frequent guest on CNN prior to his presidency and knew Zucker well during overlapping stretches at NBC. (Zucker was head of the network’s entertainment division and then rose to run all of NBC Universal; Trump was the star of NBC’s Apprentice franchise.)
Sanders said in a statement Tuesday that the White House will “vigorously defend against this lawsuit,” and she called it “more grandstanding from CNN.”
“The First Amendment is not served when a single reporter, of more than 150 present, attempts to monopolize the floor,” Sanders said. “If there is no check on this type of behavior it impedes the ability of the President, the White House staff, and members of the media to conduct business.”
Acosta, a veteran political correspondent, said in court documents that the press credential is “essential to my job.” He added: “The White House is my workplace and where I spend my working days virtually every day the president is in Washington.”
According to the complaint, Acosta traveled to Paris to cover Trump’s trip there several days after his credential was suspended.
“Although the French government issued credentials to Acosta, the Secret Service refused to allow Acosta to attend an allegedly ‘open’ press event whose attendees included journalists from around the world,” CNN said in the lawsuit. “Without his press credentials, Acosta’s ability to perform his duties as CNN’s Chief White House correspondent is effectively eliminated.”
There is legal debate about whether denial of the pass in this case constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. As media law professor Jonathan Peters of the University of Georgia writes, the “critical fact was whether access was ‘generally inclusive’ of press. If ‘generally inclusive,’ then excluding a [journalist] arbitrarily or absent good cause would implicate the First Amendment.”
In 1976, a Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, Robert Sherrill, sued the director of the U.S. Secret Service after his application for a permanent, or “hard,” White House press pass was denied, based on the Secret Service recommendation that it be rejected a decade earlier.
An appellate court ruling did not grant him the pass but found that Sherrill was owed a fair application process, including an opportunity to be informed of the reasons for the rejection and the chance to rebut the administration’s grounds for denial, under his Fifth Amendment right to due process. The court also held that “the denial of a pass potentially infringes upon first amendment guarantees.”
A variety of free speech groups have expressed support for CNN’s position.
In a statement, White House Correspondents’ Association President Olivier Knox said the organization strongly backs CNN’s efforts to restore Acosta’s credentials.
“Revoking access to the White House complex amounted to a disproportionate reaction to the events of last Wednesday,” Knox says. “The President of the United States should not be in the business of arbitrarily picking the men and women who cover him.”