In an important victory for press freedom, federal judge Timothy Kelly ordered the Trump administration on Friday to temporarily reinstate CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta’s press credentials.
“We are gratified with this result and we look forward to a full resolution in the coming days,” CNN said in a statement. “Our sincere thanks to all who have supported not just CNN, but a free, strong and independent American press.”
The White House unilaterally revoked Acosta’s press pass last week, following a tense press conference in which Acosta aggressively questioned the president about the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
On November 13, CNN and Acosta filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump as well as other administration officials, alleging that the White House’s suspension of Acosta’s press credentials had violated Acosta’s First and Fifth Amendment rights.
“Because CNN’s chief White House correspondent has effectively been prohibited from reporting from the White House and the President’s trips, its newsgathering and reporting abilities have been significantly hampered, causing harm not just to CNN, but also to its many viewers and readers who rely on CNN as an essential news source,” reads the complaint by CNN [PDF].
As CNN reported from the court proceedings earlier this week, the Trump administration lawyer made the rather illuminating argument “that it would be perfectly legal for the White House to revoke a journalist’s credentials if it didn’t agree with their reporting.”
President Trump has spent his two years in office incessantly threatening his critics and attacking the press. But over and over, Trump has disproportionately targeted and insulted CNN, and specifically Jim Acosta.
When Acosta tried to ask Trump a question days before the president’s inauguration in 2017, he refused. “I’m not going to give you a question,” he said. “You are fake news.”
Jim Acosta’s reporting style is perhaps more direct and belligerent than other reporters with the White House press corps. His willingness to ask Trump tough questions and hold him to answering them is critical in the face of an administration that readily lies and manipulates the truth.
CNN is standing by Acosta, and it’s not the only one. Numerous news organizations — including the Associated Press, Bloomberg, First Look Media, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Fox News — have filed amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit.
When a reporter asked Trump how long he would leave Acosta “in the penalty box”, the president responded: “As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t made that decision. But it could be others also.”
The White House retaliating against a reporter it doesn’t like by denying him access altogether is a threat to all reporting on the president.
“If this kind of retaliation were allowed to go unchallenged, the White House would feel emboldened to use the threat of similar revocations as a means of discouraging critical news coverage,” Katie Fallow and Jameel Jaffer warned in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Other reporters would inevitably hesitate before asking White House officials sharp questions. If the president were allowed to ban reporters whose questions he didn’t like, the result would be press conferences that served only to celebrate, and not challenge, the administration’s agenda.”
In response to CNN’s suit, the government has argued that no one has a constitutional right to a press pass, and the president has the authority to decide which journalists he speaks with and allows into the White House.
“No journalist has a First Amendment right to enter the White House and the President need not survive First Amendment scrutiny whenever he exercises his discretion to deny an individual journalist one of the many hundreds of passes granting on-demand access to the White House complex,” the government’s attorneys wrote in an opposition to CNN’s motion [PDF].
The government’s argument may seem intuitive — as one Twitter user joked, “If having a press pass is a right, I want one!” — but it sidesteps the actual issues in the case.
“The question here is not, does anybody claiming to be a journalist have the right to attend a briefing at the White House or access to the White House facilities?” Jonathan Peters, a professor of journalism and law at the University of Georgia, told Freedom of the Press Foundation. “The question is, what process is due a journalist who has received a press pass from the White House before the White House revokes it? And, can the White House revoke a press pass based on [the journalist’s] content and viewpoint?”
In other words, Acosta may not have a right to a press pass, but he does have the right not have the government arbitrarily take his press pass away.
Timothy Kelly, the federal judge presiding over CNN’s case against the president, seemed to accept with that reasoning when he granted CNN’s motion for a temporary restraining order on Friday.
Following the judge’s order, the White House begrudgingly reinstated Acosta’s press pass, but the lawsuit remains ongoing.
In remarks at the Oval Office, president Trump suggested that he would ultimately prevail in court, once the White House set up a standard process for revoking journalists’ press credentials.
“You have to act with respect when you’re at the White House, and when I see the way some of my people get treated at news conferences, it’s terrible. So we’re setting up a certain standard, which is what the court is requesting,” he said.
“We will end up back in court and we will win,” he added.