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Nov. 16, 2018 / 3:30 PM GMT
By Pete Williams
A federal judge ordered the Trump administration on Friday to immediately return, on a temporary basis, the press pass of CNN reporter Jim Acosta, who was barred from the White House after last week’s contentious televised news conference.
The order to restore Acosta’s access came from Judge Timothy Kelly, appointed a year ago to the federal district court in Washington, D.C., by President Donald Trump. He said the White House must give the credential back temporarily in order to give Acosta a chance to persuade the administration that he should be allowed to keep it.
The White House suspended Acosta’s press credential shortly after the November 7 news conference. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she acted because he refused to surrender the microphone handed to reporters asking questions of the president. Her statement accused him of “placing his hands” on a White House intern who tried to take the microphone back. Acosta’s conduct, she said, was “absolutely unacceptable.”
CNN filed a lawsuit Tuesday against President Trump, Sanders, and other officials, accusing them of violating the First Amendment rights of CNN and Acosta to report on the presidency. “This severe and unprecedented punishment is the culmination of years of hostility by President Trump against CNN and Acosta based on the contents of their reporting,” CNN’s lawyers said.
The judge said the White House denied Acosta due process by suspending his credential with no notice, but the judge did not rule on the First Amendment issues which were at the heart of the case.
Courts have long held that the government cannot discriminate against disfavored points of view.
Suspending Acosta’s press pass, which gives him access to the White House and his office in the building, is “an unabashed attempt to censor the press and exclude reporters from the White House who challenge and dispute the president’s point of view,” the lawsuit said.
Several other news organizations, including The Associated Press, Fox News, NBC News, The New York Times, and The Washington Post supported CNN. “Reporters covering the White House must remain free to ask questions. It is imperative that independent journalists have access to the President and his activities and that journalists are not barred for arbitrary reasons,” they said in a joint statement.
But the Justice Department told the judge that Acosta’s press pass was suspended because he “disrupted the fair and orderly administration of a press conference.” The government’s legal brief abandoned the claim in the Sanders statement that Acosta placed his hands on the White House intern.
As for the First Amendment issue, the government said presidents have the same discretion to regulate access to the White House as they do to select which journalists get interviews or which reporters they call on at news conferences.
The government lawyers said there’s no general right for the public or the press to enter the White House, and the First Amendment is not violated when a president exercises discretion to deny access to any of the hundreds of journalists who seek entry to the White House complex. Besides, the Justice Department said, roughly 50 other CNN employees already have White House press passes.
Last week’s televised exchange was particularly testy. When Acosta tried to ask a follow-up question, President Trump said, “CNN should be ashamed of itself, having you work for them. You are a rude, terrible person.” But the White House response appears to be the first time a reporter’s press credential was suspended because of a journalist’s demeanor.