Lawsuit against Indiana AG dismissed; barred journalist can attend future press conferences
Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, editor and publisher of the online news site IndyPolitics.org, dropped his lawsuit against Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita on March 28, 2022, after the AG agreed to allow him to attend future press conferences.
The ACLU of Indiana filed the lawsuit against Rokita on Shabazz’s behalf on Feb. 7, arguing that Shabazz was singled out and barred from attending any of the attorney general’s press conferences since October 2021.
According to court documents reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, Shabazz “is not barred from future in-person press conferences held by the defendant and will be allowed admission consistent with terms and conditions utilized for other press or media.”
Shabazz told the Tracker that this is a victory not only for him but every reporter and media organization in Indiana.
“The Attorney General should have never banned me in the first place,” Shabazz wrote in an article for IndyPolitics.org. “This is also a total victory as it not only says we can get into future press conferences, but it states that we are ‘other press or media.’”
When reached for comment, Rokita’s office shared this statement:
“We are pleased to have secured a swift dismissal of the action, which saves taxpayer dollars and allows us to focus more on protecting Hoosier values from the attacks that are coming on the heels of the General Assembly session that just concluded. There is no automatic right to attend press events in person just because someone possesses a security badge, especially when the event is accessible to everyone—in real time—with the ability to pose questions. Our office remains a leader for access, transparency, and engagement with the great people of Indiana. Stay tuned for future action from the office on these efforts.”
Abdul-Hakim Shabazz, editor and publisher of the online news site IndyPolitics.org, said he was singled out and barred from attending a press conference with Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita on Oct. 14, 2021. Since then, according to a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana against Rokita on Shabazz’s behalf on Feb. 7, 2022, he has been barred from attending any of the attorney general’s subsequent press conferences.
Shabazz, who is also an attorney, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he had a friendly relationship with Rokita until 2018, when he moderated a Republican Senate primary debate in which Rokita was a candidate. Rokita objected to Shabazz’s involvement, saying that the debate shouldn’t be led by “liberal media figures.” According to NPR-affiliate WFYI, Shabazz is widely considered to have a conservative leaning.
While Rokita lost that race, he was elected to Indiana Attorney General in 2020. Following Rokita’s inauguration in January 2021, Shabazz said he reached out to Rokita’s office to reestablish a professional relationship but didn’t receive a response.
In October, Rokita’s office announced that he would hold one of his first press conferences, specifying that it was for credentialed media and that press had to RSVP to attend; Shabazz said he followed the instructions, believing it was a newsworthy event.
When he arrived at the Indiana Statehouse for the Oct. 14 press conference, Shabazz said he was told he had been denied credentials for that event and would not be allowed to attend. He told the Tracker he had his press pass issued by the Indiana Department of Administration, but that it made no difference.
In the wake of the incident, Shabazz said he emailed the attorney general’s press secretary asking for the criteria it uses for issuing media credentials and, when he received no response, attempted to access the same information through a public records request. Shabazz said received a response confirming that the request was received, but as of February 2022 has not received any additional information.
The attorney general’s office disparaged Shabazz and his credentials in a statement issued after the press conference, WTHR reported.
“Our press conferences are meant for actual journalists reporting on real issues, instead of gossip columnists… Therefore, an OAG press conference concerning a serious investigation is not an appropriate venue for Shabazz,” the statement reads. It also asserts that the attorney general’s press conferences are livestreamed on Facebook, and Shabazz can view them like any member of the public.
“Shabazz has not been denied any public records or been prevented from attending any official public-noticed meetings.”
Shabazz told the Tracker that while he does publish a newsletter called Cheat Sheet that involves statehouse gossip, it is only one facet of the reporting work he does. In addition to his work with IndyPolitics.org, Shabazz is the host of a program on WIBC-FM and is a frequent contributor with Fox 59, WISH TV and the Indianapolis Business Journal.
The ACLU of Indiana’s lawsuit, filed in February 2022, said Rokita’s decision to ban Shabazz is not “viewpoint neutral”:
“The Attorney General’s decision to ban Mr. Shabazz is based on either personal antipathy of the Attorney General towards Mr. Shabazz or on the Attorney General’s opinion that Mr. Shabazz’s reporting is too ‘liberal,’ or perhaps based on both,” the lawsuit states.
Rokita’s press secretary, Kelly Stevenson, said in a statement to FOX59 that the office is considering filing a counterclaim and will “aggressively” defend its actions. The Tracker reached out to the Attorney General’s office via email and did not receive a response as of publication.
“We are confident that our actions are legally sound and needed to protect staff against professional harassment,” the statement said. “As one of the most accessible and highly covered elected officials in the state, it’s clear that Hoosiers know what our Attorney General is doing on their behalf, and they appreciate it.”
Shabazz told the Tracker that not being allowed in the room hampers his ability to observe body language and prevents him from asking questions in real time. His hope with the lawsuit is to regain that access.
“I want to make sure every elected official knows that you cannot tear up the First Amendment,” Shabazz said. “It was a government conference in a government building and I had every right to be there.”