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US President Donald Trump’s effort to revoke a CNN correspondent’s credentials went to court Wednesday, in a hearing that saw the channel backed by media groups – including arch-rival Fox News – who said the case was a matter of press freedom.
Lawyers for CNN and the White House – which said it had a broad right to restrict access to the president – argued before US District Judge Timothy Kelly, appointed last year by Trump, on the channel’s request for an order reinstating Jim Acosta’s White House pass.
In the emergency hearing CNN’s lawyer Ted Boutrous asked the judge for a temporary order allowing Acosta to get his pass back ahead of a full hearing.
He argued banning Acosta violated the constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of a free press because it was ‘based on the viewpoint of Mr. Acosta’ and not his behavior.
‘They don’t like the reporting’ of the CNN White House reporter, the lawyer said.
US Justice Department lawyer James Burnham echoed comments filed in a legal brief earlier in the day for the administration, saying that ‘there is no First Amendment right to access the White House’ and that the rationale behind the decision was that Acosta ‘disrupted’ a news conference last week.
Judge Kelly said he would issue his decision at 3:00 pm (2000 GMT) Thursday.
CNN’s suit was backed by a broad coalition of media groups including Fox, which is controlled by Trump ally Rupert Murdoch and often draws praise from the president.
Fox said earlier Wednesday the banning of Acosta raises concerns over press freedom.
‘Fox News supports CNN in its legal effort to regain its White House reporter’s press credential,’ the news channel’s president Jay Wallace said in a statement, indicating it would join an amicus brief on supporting CNN.
‘Secret Service passes for working White House journalists should never be weaponized,’ he said.
‘While we don’t condone the growing antagonistic tone by both the president and the press at recent media avails, we do support a free press, access and open exchanges for the American people.’
‘Broad discretion’ claimed
Others backing the CNN arguments in court included the Associated Press, Bloomberg, First Look Media Works, Gannett, the National Press Club Journalism Institute, NBC News, The New York Times, Politico, Press Freedom Defense Fund, EW Scripps Company, USA Today and The Washington Post.
‘Whether the news of the day concerns national security, the economy, or the environment, reporters covering the White House must remain free to ask questions,’ the media groups said in a joint statement ahead of the hearing.
‘It is imperative that independent journalists have access to the president and his activities, and that journalists are not barred for arbitrary reasons.’
The White House said in its legal filing it has ‘broad discretion’ to restrict media access to the president, disputing the argument that its actions violate the constitution.
‘The President and White House possess the same broad discretion to regulate access to the White House for journalists (and other members of the public) that they possess to select which journalists receive interviews, or which journalists they acknowledge at press conferences,’ said the brief.
The filing by US Justice Department lawyers argued that ‘the president could choose never to hold another press briefing again and cancel all press passes, without implicating due process protections.’
‘Grandstanding’
The White House brief argued there is no imminent harm to CNN or Acosta because he ‘remains able to practice his profession and report on the White House’ and that CNN ‘has roughly 50 other employees who retain hard passes and who are more than capable of covering the White House complex on CNN’s behalf.’
Acosta, CNN’s chief White House reporter, had his press pass lifted November 7 after a testy exchange with Trump at a White House news conference.
CNN – part of the WarnerMedia division of AT&T – filed suit on Tuesday.
Trump’s administration initially said Acosta was banned for inappropriately touching a White House female intern as he struggled to hold on to a microphone. The White House cited a video which analysts said had been sped up, giving the appearance that Acosta struck the intern’s arm.
Trump later said other journalists might be barred as well if they were not ‘respectful.’
Free speech activists have warned the case has important implications, and that public officials should not be able to bar access to journalists if they dislike news coverage.
The White House has dismissed CNN’s complaint as ‘grandstanding’ and vowed to ‘vigorously defend’ against the lawsuit.