One month after WorldNetDaily’s Capitol hearing in which it appealed the Senate Press Gallery’s denial of permanent press credentials, the gallery appears to be “dragging its feet” and making a long string of unreasonable demands for further documentation, says WND’s attorney, who adds that such delaying tactics eventually will force the news organization to file suit against the gallery.
On April 15, representatives of WorldNetDaily appeared at the U.S. Capitol for the hearing over the Feb. 8 decision by the gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents to deny WND accreditation. The popular newssite, with more than 2.5 million readers, applied for credentials a full year earlier, on Feb. 8, 2001.
Representing WND in the hearing before the Standing Committee – made up of staffers from Bloomberg News, Reuters, Knight Ridder, Cox Newspapers and the Columbus Dispatch – were WorldNetDaily Editor and CEO Joseph Farah, co-founder and Senior Vice President Elizabeth Farah, Washington bureau chief Paul Sperry and WND’s attorney Richard Ackerman.
The committee has objected to what it calls “cross-over ownership” between the for-profit newssite and Western Journalism Center, a 501(c)3 nonprofit from which it was spun off in 1999 – citing fears WorldNetDaily might somehow be engaged in lobbying activities on behalf of the non-profit organization that birthed it.
The panel also claims that WorldNetDaily – which has tens of thousands of original stories permanently archived onsite – does not carry enough “original content,” despite the fact that some of the more than 300 currently accredited daily news organizations consist of only one person.
Ackerman, a lawyer for the nonprofit public-interest United States Justice Foundation representing WorldNetDaily, argued at the hearing that the Senate-controlled committee is more concerned with the political nature of WorldNetDaily content, judging from 27 articles it picked as samples – most of which had “conservative” in the headline.
The committee, said Ackerman, appeared to be engaged in “viewpoint-based discrimination” in denying WorldNetDaily full access to cover Congress. If so, he warned, that would constitute a violation of the news organization’s right to equal protection under the First Amendment.
During the hearing, committee Chairman Bill Roberts of Bloomberg dismissed such concerns as “legal static.”
A permanent congressional press pass is an essential tool for Washington-based journalists, since it allows unfettered access to many key government offices, congressional hearings, press conferences and the like. Particularly since the Sept. 11 terrorism, notes Farah, “hard passes are more vital than ever for working journalists in Washington” given the heightened security environment.
“With greater restrictions on public access to elected officials and government events, Americans must rely on journalists now more than ever to report what’s going on in Washington. As a fearless watchdog on government, WND in particular needs such a hard pass to adequately serve its millions of loyal readers,” he said.
After the hearing – in which both Ackerman and Farah presented WND’s case and answered all questions posed by the Standing Committee – the committee’s lawyer, N. Frank Wiggins, suggested WND provide further documentation to the panel regarding the independence of WorldNetDaily from Western Journalism Center.
The news organization has since done so – providing articles of incorporation, bylaws for both WorldNetDaily and the Western Journalism Center, lists of employees, corporate officers and directors as well as written histories of both entities, and more.
“We provided them with everything that could possibly prove WND’s independence from the Western Journalism Center,” said Ackerman.
But then, the gallery started asking for private financial records, complained WND’s attorney – “financial statements, stock ownership documents and more.” WND said no. “They wanted to completely invade our privacy. There is just no need for us to lay out entire portfolio for them to look at for them to find out if we’re qualified under Rule 4.”
“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.
In his May 6 letter to Roberts, Ackerman complained about what appear to be constantly changing requirements on the part of the Standing Committee:
- We have voluntarily provided the committee’s counsel with copies of relevant corporate documents and other information relating to the legal and factual independence of WorldNetDaily.com from Western Journalism Center. Much of the information provided was of a public nature and could have been equally accessible to the Committee. Moreover, the committee has indicated that it used Guidestar as a reference in determination of the application. If this is true, then the committee would be aware of the fact that our client’s application presents with absolutely no violations of Press Gallery Rules. If anything, all available information shows that there is no lobbying activity or other disallowed conduct by either entity.
Indeed, we have yet to be provided with any proof that our clients engage in the activities prohibited by the Press Gallery Rules. While we think that no such evidence exists, even in the slightest, the committee has still seen to it that WorldNetDaily’s application was denied. We have absolutely no basis, in fact or law, from which we can begin to understand the denial of our client’s application. By all outward appearances, we are being forced to argue against a constantly moving and subjective determination of what constitutes a basis for denial, without any access to the information upon which the committee’s determination is based.
Regarding Rule 4, which the Standing Committee has cited in denying WorldNetDaily press credentials, Ackerman wrote:
- If the committee chooses to discriminate against certain types of relationships, we are not aware of what its legal justification for doing so might be. Were restrictive interpretations applied to all members of the gallery, many would not be credentialed. As indicated before, there is absolutely no evidence in the record to suggest that WorldNetDaily.com has operated against any of the admonitions delineated in Rule 4 or other gallery regulations. If it is the position of the committee that a member can have NO connection to a non-profit entity, we kindly request that your Statement of Decision specifically outline the legal basis for that conclusion, an explanation of your past and continuing approval/acceptance of non-profit entities for press credentials, and a description of what the application standards/policies are for non-profits and those with a connection to non-profit entities.
To date, Ackerman hasn’t received even an acknowledgment of his May 6 letter to Roberts.
In light of what Ackerman calls the press gallery’s “foot-dragging” – a decision had been expected within two weeks of the hearing – what happens next?
“For now, we’re being as cooperative as we can,” said Ackerman. “But if they don’t move soon, we will take further legal action.”
What sort of action?
“Unless they recognize our First Amendment rights, we will be forced to file a lawsuit against the Senate Press Gallery to vindicate those rights.”
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.