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Calling the Senate Press Gallery’s denial of WorldNetDaily’s application for permanent congressional press credentials “the most unconstitutional thing I’ve seen in a long, long time,” the United States Justice Foundation has formally demanded a hearing so the popular newssite can appeal the recent decision.
In a four-page letter, Richard Ackerman, attorney for the non-profit public-interest law firm representing WND, asked that the gallery’s “standing committee immediately reconsider its decision to deny the application of our client. … It is our client’s position that the denial of credentials in this case was not consistent with the United States Constitution, First Amendment common law, and that the denial clearly violated the guarantees of Equal Protection and Due Process.”
Last week, WorldNetDaily reported that the Senate Press Gallery, after sitting on WND’s application and fees for an entire year, declined the Internet news organization’s request for permanent congressional press credentials – an essential tool for Washington, D.C.-based journalists.
In addition to hundreds of news periodicals and broadcast organizations, more than 300 daily publications are currently accredited, including the propaganda arms of totalitarian governments such as China’s Xinhua News Agency and Beijing Daily.
The U.S. Justice Foundation letter, dated Feb. 14, was sent to William Roberts, chairman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents (and chairman of Bloomberg News) and Joe Keenan, deputy director of the Senate Press Gallery.
Noting that accreditation has been “extended to more than 300 other media outlets by the Committee,” allowing access and benefits “necessary and expected” on the part of Washington-based journalists, the letter stated that “these benefits relate directly to the exercise of the right to engage in freedom of the press. The right to freedom of the press has been held, time and again, to be a fundamental right that exists at the very core of our system of government and, as such, is a fundamental right that cannot be infringed without some compelling state interest.”
Citing numerous legal precedents, Ackerman added: “There are no compelling state interests which could justify the egregious conduct of the Committee in this instance. The Committee has absolutely abused whatever discretion it had over the application of WorldNetDaily.”
Ackerman went on to describe the decision against WorldNetDaily on the part of the Standing Committee of Correspondents – a group of five journalists to which the Senate Rules Committee delegates the task of evaluating applications and dispensing press credentials to bona fide news organizations – as “discriminatory, arbitrary, capricious, and not supported by substantial evidence.”
He states in the letter: “What is most shameful about this case is the fact that the instant violations of the Constitution are coming from the very heart of our American democracy. It seems almost unimaginable that fellow members of the press, operating as state actors on the Committee, would engage in such discrimination. The Committee, of all governmental agencies, should be the most aware of the constitutional values at stake in the denial of an application for press credentials. Arbitrary prohibition of access to ‘open government’ demonstrates the most callous disregard for the First Amendment.”
After turning WorldNetDaily down at its Jan. 29 meeting, Roberts wrote WorldNetDaily an explanatory letter citing two reasons for the denial: One, that WND originated from a non-profit organization, the Western Journalism Center, which today owns a minority of stock in WorldNetDaily – implying that WND is somehow engaged in lobbying or promotion work on behalf of “tax-free special interest or issue advocacy groups.” And two, that WND does not have enough original content to qualify.
However, the rules governing the standing committee say nothing whatsoever about non-profits, nor about the required number of reporters. Indeed, among the hundreds of news organizations accredited by the standing committee are non-profit organizations (Associated Press), church-sponsored news organizations (such as the Christian Science Monitor), at least one one-man operation (Bovard News Service), and at least one organization, PlanetGov.com, that has no reporters at all – but which posts only news links from other media.
Referring to Roberts’ two official reasons for turning down WND, Ackerman’s letter argued that “evidence of prior approvals of other similarly situated or less situated news outlets shows that the Committee has applied arbitrary and discriminatory standards in this case.”
The U.S.J.F. took specific aim at a particular rule cited by Keenan as the one applied in voting against WND. “Senate Press Gallery Rule 4” states:
- 4. Provided, however, that the Standing Committee of Correspondents shall admit to the galleries no person who does not establish to the satisfaction of the Standing Committee all of the following:
(a) That his or her principal income is obtained from news correspondence intended for publication in newspapers entitled to second-class mailing privileges.
(b) That he or she is not engaged in paid publicity or promotion work or in prosecuting any claim before Congress or before any department of the government, and will not become so engaged while a member of the galleries.
(c) That he or she is not engaged in any lobbying activity and will not become so engaged while a member of the galleries.
“On its very face,” wrote Ackerman, “Rule 4 is unconstitutionally vague and amounts to a prior restraint on protected First Amendment freedoms. To the extent that this Rule allows the Committee to place prior restraints on the form and manner of reporting by WorldNetDaily, or discriminates against the sponsors of its speech, it creates an impermissible prior restraint on the ability of our client to effectively and equally report on legislative matters. Such restrictions have been held to be violative of the First Amendment. New York Times v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971).
The law firm further accuses the Senate Press Gallery of engaging in an illegal licensing scheme, saying, “licenses to engage in First Amendment freedoms have long been held to be violative of the First Amendment. Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938); Staub v. Baxley, 355 U.S. 313 (1958); Saia v. New York, 334 U.S. 558 (1948). … Rule 4 has been used as an unconstitutional licensing scheme to keep WorldNetDaily from being able to effectively report matters of concern to the public. Nothing could be more damaging to the First Amendment.”
The letter concludes by requesting that “the Committee immediately reconsider its position sua sponte. In the alternative, it is respectfully requested that this matter be set for a full hearing on the merits. Proper notice and an opportunity to conduct appropriate discovery and cross examination is hereby demanded as well.”
Support from colleagues
Meanwhile, while thousands of readers continue to send e-mails in support of WND to Deputy Director Joe Keenan and Standing Committee Chairman Bill Roberts, one reader has initiated an online petition in support of WND’s being granted permanent congressional press credentials.
Even some members of the press are now openly criticizing the press gallery’s decision against WND. Clifton S. Smith, Jr., publisher of the 72-year-old San Marino (California) Tribune, wrote Keenan: “The denial of full press credentials to WorldNetDaily is absurd. WND is a full-fledged daily Internet newspaper read and used by our subscribers on a consistent basis. Their proprietary reporting has generated substantial interest among our readership.”
Noting that the Tribune has been accredited to the United States Supreme Court, Smith said his newspaper “intend(s) to call for stripping your group of its clubbish power to restrict serious news organizations from access to our center of government. You have abused your power and you should no longer be entrusted with it.”
As WND noted Thursday, Pat Clawson, a former member of the board of the press gallery’s Standing Committee for Periodicals (which grants credentials to magazines, rather than daily publications), told the newssite: “The First Amendment means nothing to these people. The taxpayers pay for this circus, public employees work in these galleries, and it is one of the most incestuous, pork-barrel operations you have ever seen – and nobody in the press will take it on.”
Donna L. Halper, a veteran journalism instructor at Boston’s Emerson College, wrote to WND: “I may not be considered your ‘typical’ reader – I am liberal/moderate, a Jewish
feminist, and I tend to vote Democratic. … [but] I have found your reporting to be very thought-provoking, even when I’ve disagreed with it.”
Halper, who teaches courses in media criticism, added: “I find your website offers some very valuable perspectives, especially on the Middle East. I am absolutely mystified by why you wouldn’t be given a press pass – it seems logical that your reporters, as bona fide journalists, should be present where the news is being made. I hope the ‘powers that be’ will re-consider.”
Editor’s note: WorldNetDaily has a Legal Defense Fund, set up originally to help support the newssite in its litigation with Al Gore crony Clark Jones in Tennessee and other legal challenges we face from time to time. Readers who wish to donate to help in these matters may do so in two ways:
- Make a tax-deductible contribution to the U.S. Justice Foundation, the public-interest legal group that is handling WND’s case against the Senate Press Gallery in Washington. This same group is aiding in WND’s defamation case in Tennessee.
- If tax-deductibility is not an issue, readers may donate directly to WND’s Legal Defense Fund.