Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Federal District Judge Issues Preliminary Injunction to Restore Press Pass
In a well-considered opinion in Karem v. Trump, United States District Judge for the District of Columbia, Rudolph Contreras, issued a preliminary injunction requiring the defendants President Trump and White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham to restore the "hard pass" press credential to plaintiff Brian Karem.
As Judge Contreras explained, the "hard pass" is a long term press pass that the White House has made available for "decades and across many presidential administrations" to "any Washington-based journalist who regularly covers the President and can clear a Secret Service background check." In 1977, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals held that reporters have a First Amendment liberty interest in possessing a long-term so-called “hard pass”—an interest that, under the Fifth Amendment, may not be deprived without due process, Sherrill v. Knight, 569 F.2d 124 (D.C. Cir. 1977).
The defendants admitted that the revocation of Karem's hard pass was punitive. The revocation of Karem's hard pass came three weeks after an incident in the Rose Garden which Judge Contreras describes in detail, noting that the incident was captured on video and shared widely on the internet.
Judge Contreras noted repeatedly that the court did not reach Karem's First Amendment challenge, but resolved the issue on Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause grounds. One aspect of the due process challenge was procedural due process, as in Sherrill v. Knight, which the court found applicable despite the defendants' argument that Sherrill should be limited to its precise facts, situations in which the Secret Service denied a hard pass application for security reasons. Another aspect of the due process challenge was vagueness, which surfaces in Sherrill but is more directly addressed by the United States Supreme Court's opinion in FCC v. Fox (2012), in which the Court found that the FCC fleeting expletives and nudity regulations were unconstitutional.
Here, Judge Contreras found that the White House guidelines were not constitutionally adequate, even when considering the so-called "Acosta Letter" issued by the White House to the press corps in November 2018, although Grisham did not reference or seemingly rely on that letter when issuing her revocation of Karem's hard pass.
On the balance of equities and public interest regarding the preliminary injunction, Judge Contreras noted the three week lag from the event to the discipline and also stated:
The Court understands the White House’s desire to maintain a degree of control over access and decorum, and at first glance, some might think the temporary suspension of a single reporter’s press pass to be a relatively modest exercise of such control. But as Sherrill makes clear, the conferral of White House hard passes is no mere triviality. And the need for regulatory guidance is at its highest where constitutional rights are implicated.
The White House could react by appealing to the DC Circuit — or by attempting to issue regulatory guidance that might or might not apply to Karem's actions.