September 29, 2020

Judge Allows PEN America’s Lawsuit Against Donald Trump Over Retaliation Against The Media To Proceed

We’ve written a few times about the White House’s unconstitutional retaliation against journalists it did not like, such as Jim Acosta and Brian Karem. PEN America, a key group fighting for free speech rights for journalists and writers, has now been allowed to proceed in its lawsuit against the President over his campaign of retaliation against journalists. PEN America had sued back in 2018, asking for declaratory and injunctive relief (basically the court telling the Trump White House to knock it off) against a variety of forms of retaliation he had done or threatened against the press.

Specifically, PEN America had raised five actions that Trump had done or threatened to do in retaliation against the press: barring access to White House briefings, revoking (or threatening to revoke) security clearances of ex-government employees for commentary made to news organizations, threats to revoke broadcast licenses, raising postage rates to attack Amazon in response to Washington Post coverage, and interfering with the AT&T/Time Warner merger over anger about CNN’s coverage.

The DOJ had argued in response that PEN America had no standing, since Trump had not targeted PEN America. PEN America’s response was that Trump had targeted PEN America members, including various news orgs and their employees, such as Jim Acosta. Indeed, when the filing was first made, we pointed out that the “standing” question would be a big hurdle. However, in a bit of a surprise, the court has said that PEN America has enough standing to proceed… at least on two of the issues at play:

Plaintiff has constitutional standing to pursue First Amendment claims against Defendant’s practice of (i) selectively barring access to the White House press corps, including by revoking or threatening to revoke press credentials, due to hostility to the reporters’ speech (the “Press Corps Claim”), and (ii) revoking or threatening to revoke the security clearances of former government officials whose commentary he dislikes (the “Security Clearance Claim”). As explained below, Plaintiff does not have standing to challenge Defendant’s alleged threats to revoke broadcast licenses, the executive order on postal rates, the directive to challenge the AT&T-Time Warner merger or regulatory threats against internet companies.

When PEN America first filed the case, we noted that the standing issue for those direct actions against companies would be a tough one, as it should be the media companies themselves who would have to file suit, rather than PEN America, and that seemed to be where the judge came down as well:

Plaintiff does not have associational standing for the other allegations — Defendant’s revocation of security clearances, threats to revoke broadcast licenses, the postal rates executive order or the challenge to the AT&T-Time Warner merger and regulatory threats to internet companies — because the Complaint does not identify any PEN America member who has standing to bring these claims. The only member named period is Mr. Acosta. But Mr. Acosta does not have a sufficient “personal stake” in these allegations to confer standing.

Basically, just because some of your unnamed members might sorta be impacted indirectly by these threats, that’s not enough for standing:

Mr. Acosta is many steps removed from each of the challenged actions, and any purported injury to him is far too speculative…. Defendant’s remarks about revoking broadcast licenses are Twitter vitriol, posed as questions (“Collusion?” “At what point is it appropriate to challenge their License?”), and refer vaguely to “the Networks,” not to CNN where Mr. Acosta works. The injury to Mr. Acosta due to the AT&T-Time Warner antitrust lawsuit is similarly speculative, because the lawsuit targets only CNN’s parent. Likewise, the postal rates executive order, security clearance revocations and regulatory threats to Google and social media companies have no direct bearing on Mr. Acosta.

However, the surprising bit is that standing was granted regarding the direct issues regarding the White House press corp and former White House staffers who might lose their security clearance in a fit of anger by the President (this was done against former CIA Director John Brennan).

Here, the court says there’s enough to let the case move forward on these points, mainly because it can name an actual person who was impacted directly by these issues:

The Complaint alleges that Mr. Acosta and the press corps have suffered an “objective harm [and] a threat of a specific future harm,”… and that Mr. Acosta’s resulting speech and receipt-of-information injuries are concrete, actual and particularized. Defendant has made an example of Mr. Acosta, by stripping his press credentials after he asked Defendant critical questions about the Administration, barring Mr. Acosta from the venue necessary to perform his job and directing the Press Secretary to warn other reporters that they would face similar consequences as Mr. Acosta…. The allegations furthermore suggest that Defendant punished Mr. Acosta publicly in order to chill his speech and the press corps’. In demonstrating that Defendant would in fact punish reporters who spoke critically, Defendant made his threats of future punishment more credible, and consequently, effective. The speech injuries are furthermore particular to Mr. Acosta. As a member of the press corps, and as a reporter specially targeted by Defendant, Mr. Acosta is uniquely vulnerable to Defendant’s threats. He also has a unique interest in hearing the questions and discussion of his press corps colleagues with Defendant, which facilitate Mr. Acosta’s own reporting.

The allegations also establish a causal connection between the injuries and the challenged conduct. It is plain that the injuries trace to Defendant’s actions. A favorable ruling furthermore will likely redress the practice. The Complaint explicitly pleads, quoting from the Press Secretary’s e-mail, that Defendant and his staff are ready to heed a court decision on proper rules of conduct for governing the White House press corps.

For what it’s worth, the DOJ tried to wipe away the Acosta point by arguing that since it gave him back his press credentials, there was no issue, but the court points out (in a footnote) why that’s not true at all, because the real issue is the chilling effect. And that’s still around.

Defendant argues, to the contrary, that Mr. Acosta has no injury-in-fact because his press credentials were restored in November 2018. But this argument misunderstands the nature of the asserted injuries. Although loss of credentials may be injurious, Plaintiff has alleged instead that “speech [itself] has been adversely affected,” i.e. the injury of an ongoing chilling of speech and corollary ongoing interference with receipt of information.

As for the security clearance claim, the court also says that there’s enough evidence to suggest a specific kind of injury for which it has standing. Part of the reason here, is that PEN America’s advocacy role often relies on getting information from former government officials — so a chill on them would harm PEN America directly.

With respect to the Security Clearance Claim, Plaintiff has a receipt-of-information injury because Defendant’s actions plausibly chilled the speech of the six government officials named in the Complaint. After four of these officials spoke critically about Defendant in the media, the Press Secretary announced that Defendant was considering revoking the six officials’ security clearances, expressly citing their media commentary. Defendant ultimately revoked the security clearance of one official, an allegedly unprecedented action by a President. The officials are otherwise frequent and willing speakers in the media. The Complaint has plausibly alleged therefore that Defendant’s retaliation and threats of further retaliation against these officials have objectively chilled the volume or quality of their media speech. Plaintiff’s right to receive the speech has in turn been impaired….

…. Plaintiff is an organization that, among other things, engages in advocacy for freedom of the press, monitors the government’s impact on the press, and publishes research and analysis on these issues. Plaintiff’s sources of information include these former government officials, who provide unique and expert insight on the Administration. Loss of these official’s speech is therefore not a generalized grievance and affects Plaintiff’s operations directly…. Thisinjury is indisputably traceable to Defendant’s actions. The allegations that Defendant and his staff will be responsive to court orders suggest that a favorable ruling would deter Defendant from retaliating or threatening to retaliate against the officials’ speech.

Separately, there’s standing on behalf of PEN America’s members who rely on those former government officials as well.

Similarly, Plaintiff has organizational standing as to the Press Corps Claim. Defendant’s actions have plausibly chilled the White House press corps’ speech, the questions they ask Defendant and the reporting they consequently are able to publish. The chilling impedes Plaintiff’s right to receive information. Since PEN America monitors how government interacts with press, and its own members are in the White House press corps, Plaintiff has a particular interest in receiving and monitoring this speech.

I still wonder how useful this overall case is — and think it would have been stronger if those who were the direct targets of Trump’s statements had sued on their own behalf. But, keeping the Trump administration from threatening retaliation so freely would certainly be a win for the 1st Amendment.

Via:: Judge Allows PEN America’s Lawsuit Against Donald Trump Over Retaliation Against The Media To Proceed