White House suspends correspondent’s press pass, reporter alleges retaliation
Brian Karem, a White House correspondent for Playboy and political analyst for CNN, tweeted that beginning on Aug. 5, 2019, his press pass would be suspended for 30 days.
Karem received an email from White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham at around 5 p.m. the Friday before the suspension went into effect notifying him of the “preliminary decision,” citing his actions at President Donald Trump’s social media summit the previous month, The Washington Post reported. At a press event in the Rose Garden that day, Karem had a heated exchange with former White House aide and radio host Sebastian Gorka.
Gorka has had at least one other altercation with the media.
Karem wrote in an article for Playboy that the move to pull his press pass was actually in retaliation for him “rock[ing] the boat” and “ask[ing] hard questions” over the last several weeks.
“They’re claiming [the reason is] something that happened 21 days ago. I’m there every day. If this was an issue, it should’ve been brought to my attention long before now,” Karem told the Post.
Playboy and Karem have retained First Amendment attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr., who successfully represented CNN and Jim Acosta when Acosta’s credentials were suspended in November 2018.
In a response and appeal to Grisham dated Aug. 5, Boutrous noted that in the letter to Karem, Grisham acknowledged that the White House had not issued any “explicit rules… to govern behavior by members of the press at White House press events.” Citing multiple instances where other attendees at the press event in July engaged in similar behavior to Karem’s but were not censured, Boutrous argued that the suspension was “arbitrary and unfair.”
Boutrous additionally highlighted that Karem had reached out to the press office multiple times to discuss the incident, but the first meeting was canceled and subsequent emails ended without a meeting scheduled.
“Hard passes are not meant to be weaponized as a means of penalizing reporters for coverage with which the administration disagrees based on amorphous and subjective standards,” Boutrous wrote. “Such actions unconstitutionally chill the free press.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association published a statement in support of Karem on Aug. 4.
“We sincerely hope this White House does not again make the mistake of revoking a reporter’s hard pass,” WHCA President Jonathan Karl said in the statement. “The WHCA has stood up to violations of due process rights before and we stand ready to safeguard those rights for all reporters who work to hold our government accountable.”
A federal judge ruled on Sept. 3, 2019, that the White House must restore the hard pass of Brian Karem, Playboy columnist and CNN political analyst.
Karem had been informed via email by Press Secretary Grisham that his 30-day hard pass, used for access to the White House, would be suspended beginning Monday, Aug. 5. The suspension followed a heated exchange in the Rose Garden with conservative talk radio host Sebastian Gorka.
According to CNN, US District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote in his opinion that "Karem has shown that even the temporary suspension of his pass inflicts irreparable harm on his First Amendment rights."
"It's good for me, but it's great for the free press,” Karem told CNN. “Today was about all of us."
Karem is the second journalist to have a hard pass revoked during the Trump administration. In November 2018, CNN Chief White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta, had his hard press revoked. CNN sued, and the White House restored his pass.
A federal appeals court unanimously ruled on June 5, 2020, that the White House press secretary violated Playboy correspondent Brian Karem’s Fifth Amendment right to due process when revoking his hard pass in August 2019.
Then-Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham had informed Karem via email that his hard pass would be suspended for 30 days, citing Karem’s heated exchange with conservative talk radio host Sebastian Gorka at an event in the Rose Garden.
The D.C. district court ruled in favor of Karem in September 2019 and ordered the White House to restore the journalist’s hard pass. However, attorneys from the Justice Department appealed the case on behalf of Trump and Grisham.
A coalition of 45 media organizations — led by one of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker’s partners, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press — filed an amicus brief on Karem’s behalf against the appeal.
A three-judge panel from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling, citing the absence of any guidelines for appropriate behavior or what actions might lead to a press pass being suspended or revoked.
Judge David S. Tatel wrote in the court’s opinion, “[T]he White House may not rely on unarticulated standards of professionalism or ‘the adage that some things go without saying’ to justify the thirty-day suspension for the conduct at issue here.”
Tatel also criticized the White House for “raising the specter of the absurd” with its argument that “the Press Secretary would be powerless to take action even were a reporter to ‘moon’ the President, shout racial epithets at a foreign dignitary, or sexually harass another member of the press corps.”
He assured the White House that principles of due process would not prevent it from maintaining order and decorum at events and press conferences.