After enduring 19 months of delays, ever-changing goalposts, and what it sees as blatant double standards and discrimination, WorldNetDaily.com Inc. is preparing to sue the Senate Press Gallery in federal court for denying the popular newssite access to Congress.
Litigation attorney Richard Ackerman, representing WND on behalf of the non-profit United States Justice Foundation, sent a scathing letter Friday to William Roberts, chairman of the gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents, announcing the news organization’s intention to sue. The committee, consisting of five working journalists, chooses which news organizations will and will not be allowed physical access to cover Congress.
“Please be advised that this letter serves as our last request for approval of permanent credentials in the above referenced matter,” wrote Ackerman. “Unfortunately, if no action is taken by you or the Senate Rules Committee within the next 10 days, we will be forced to institute litigation in federal court.”
Although the Senate Rules and Administration Committee has legal authority over press access to the Capitol and nearby House and Senate office buildings, it has delegated that responsibility to the Senate Press Gallery, which in turn empanels the Standing Committee of Correspondents that actually evaluates and decides on applicant organizations.
No word yet from Senate
Three weeks ago, on Aug. 12, WorldNetDaily formally appealed to the Senate Rules Committee to reverse the Standing Committee’s Jan. 29 decision denying the newssite permanent press credentials. In the appeal brief filed with Rules chairman Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., WND’s legal team argued that the Standing Committee violated the newssite’s constitutional rights as a member of the free press by discriminating against it on political grounds. A copy of the 31-page brief also was sent to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who shares governing authority over the press galleries.
In that appeal to the Senate, Ackerman said that the Standing Committee – whose current members work for Reuters, Cox Newspapers, Knight Ridder, Bloomberg News and the Columbus Dispatch – acted out of disdain for what it perceives to be the conservative bent of WND.
“The denial of application in this case was spurred by content-based discrimination because of political views,” he argued, pointing to a list of research items used by the committee to evaluate WND. The two-page list (page one and page two) was the only material turned over to WND’s legal team for its April 15 appeal in the Capitol, despite a written request for all documents related to the popular newssite’s case.
“The materials provided by Mr. (Frank) Wiggins (the Standing Committee’s counsel) make replete reference to stories about ‘conservatism,’ ‘Larry Klayman,’ ‘conspiracism,’ ‘the New Right,’ ‘[c]onservative bent,’ ‘[c]ulture war,’ ‘Judicial Watch,’ and other references to what is commonly associated with conservatism,” Ackerman noted. Content-based discrimination is, per se, a violation of the First Amendment – which states, in part, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” noted Ackerman, citing several case precedents in the Senate brief.
Suit to allege ‘intentional violations’
Turning up the heat, however, WND is now intent on taking the Press Gallery to federal court.
If the 10 days pass without positive action on the part of either the Standing Committee or the Senate Rules Committee, said Ackerman, WND’s complaint “will allege intentional violations of the First Amendment, intentional violations of the Ninth Amendment, business disparagement, defamation, intentional interference with economic advantage, anti-trust violations, violations of ‘sunshine’ laws, invasion of privacy, and other unlawful conduct.”
Defendants will include the Standing Committee of Correspondents as well as the individual committee members. In addition, the media employers of the five Standing Committee members may not be immune from prosecution. Ackerman wrote:
- If it comes to our attention that the employers of any of the Committee members have paid for, supervised, provided work space, computer or other equipment, or supplies, ratified, or acted as principals in any of the Committee’s work in this particular matter, we will be forced to name those entities as defendants as well. Obviously, we will give any employers the opportunity to promptly extricate themselves from any potential liability if they have nothing to do with the Committee’s conduct in this matter. We are in the process of determining whether or not the Committee member’s employers paid for, ratified, or supervised the time spent in denying the application of WorldNetDaily.com and during the times that the Committee members engaged in other alleged tortious conduct as referenced above.
As WorldNetDaily recently reported, since receiving WND’s application for permanent Capitol press credentials early last year, the Standing Committee has demonstrated what Ackerman calls a “pattern of deceit”:
He says they have withheld public information, contradicted themselves, misrepresented facts, misled some of WND’s more than 2.5 million readers and even a U.S. senator, told half-truths and outright falsehoods, broken due-process and procedural rules, and pried into the news-gathering practices of an independent, privately owned for-profit news organization.
A few examples, among many others:
- The committee has deliberated in secret on applicants for press credentials, sometimes adjudicating without even taking a vote.
- Standing Committee member Jack Torry claimed WND doesn’t “publish its own content,” even though the newssite has published more than 14,000 original news stories and columns since its founding, many of which have been cited by Torry’s own publication, the Columbus Dispatch, and those of all the other members of the committee.
- The committee told Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that it turned down WND’s application because it didn’t meet the “50 percent” threshold for original content, although there is no such rule, written or otherwise.
- Torry also maintained that WND “turned down” temporary credentials, though none were offered.
- Standing Committee Chairman William L. Roberts III of Bloomberg News said the panel gave WND the “same three-month temporary” credentials it gave the military newspaper Stars & Stripes – although it never happened.
- The panel charged WND took money from Richard Mellon Scaife, alleged don of the so-called “vast right-wing conspiracy” against the Clintons, even though WND has never received a dime from Scaife. “Not,” says WorldNetDaily Editor and Chief Executive Officer Joseph Farah, “that it would be any of the committee’s business if it had.”
- Gallery deputy director Stephen J. “Joe” Keenan had promised WND the committee would decide on WND’s application with “three others” early last summer, but it didn’t do so. Then in August 2001, Keenan said the panel would decide on WND after Labor Day, although it didn’t meet on WND until this year – 12 months after WND applied.
- Standing Committee lawyer N. Frank Wiggins of Venable LLP insisted WND could not see notes of meetings or any other documents related to the consideration of WND’s application, insisting they weren’t public. But notes of meetings had been posted on a bulletin board in the Senate Press Gallery where even non-members could see them.
- Although Roberts now says he’s made the WND minutes available, in reality he merely posted on the gallery website excerpts of excerpts. Roberts ordered a staffer to retype minutes in which WND was mentioned. They are not copies of the formal minutes, nor are they the complete minutes of those meetings.
- Keenan, whose news media experience involves delivering the Tucson Citizen, originally told WND its application was being held up because it was purely an Internet newspaper with no
offline companion (much like Bloomberg News, ironically enough). His boss said the same thing. In the end, however, the committee objected to what it termed “cross-ownership” between WND and the nonprofit Western Journalism Center, from which it was spun off in 1999. It also cited a lack of “significant” original content.
- Although the committee suggested WND come back when it had a bigger staff to put out more original content like other members, in reality there are
several one-man shops in the gallery who generate little original content. The panel even approved Planetgov.com, which, when observed for weeks by WorldNetDaily staffers, had no original content before it folded recently.
- The committee claims it offered WND “one-day temporary credentials on an as-needed basis for up to six months pending receipt of further
information concerning the relationship between WorldNetDaily and the Western Journalism Center.” But this never happened.
- It also claimed WND was a subsidiary of WJC, when WJC is in reality only a shareholder in WND. The two companies are completely independent, incorporated in different states, with entirely different directors and no common employees, points out Farah.
- Disabused of that notion, the committee then argued that WND is part-owned by a nonprofit in violation of membership rules, when in fact no such nonprofit rule exists. Morover, the panel has approved for membership in the gallery several nonprofits, not the least of which is the Associated Press, the gallery’s largest member and the largest news-gathering organization in the world.
- Undeterred, the gatekeepers suggested that 501(c)3s like WJC are somehow lobbying organizations, despite the fact that, unlike for-profits, they are specifically restricted from lobbying.
- The panel claimed it had denied – in separate adjudications, one held in secret with no vote – WND’s Washington bureau chief both permanent and day-pass credentials. But Senate rules require panel members to first accredit new organizations, then individuals. They got it backwards, says Ackerman, thus abrogating the action.
‘Defamed and disparaged’ WND
“Unfortunately,” Ackerman wrote to Roberts about the impending lawsuit, “it would appear that the Committee’s members have defamed and disparaged WorldNetDaily.com and its personnel in recent communiques to the public and through other conduct. It also appears that violations of Senate and House rules and protocol have been intentional and discriminatory. As well, there has been a conscious disregard of the Due Process to be afforded to my clients under the United States Constitution.
“Thus, it is our position that the Committee and its members are not immune from damages and injunctive relief given the conduct involved in this matter. Accordingly, the Committee’s members are advised to contact their own insurance companies with regard to any anticipated claims,” wrote WND’s attorney.
“We have suspected it would come down to litigation in the end,” said Farah. “This committee has insulted us as a company and as individual journalists – despite the fact that those applying for accreditation have far more experience and achievements in our industry than any of those gatekeepers on the committee. This group of elitists just doesn’t understand who they are tangling with and, more importantly, what they are tangling with – the First Amendment. We have exhausted every administrative remedy in this paper chase. Now it’s time for the courts to decide whether we still have a free press in America.”
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 – like the current one with the Senate Press Gallery. 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.
Contacts for Press Gallery case:
Kennie Gill, Senate Rules Committee chief of staff
Sheryl Cohen, Sen. Dodd’s chief of staff
Kyle Simmons, chief of staff for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., ranking Republican on Rules Committee
Tad Vandermeid, Speaker Hastert’s legal counsel
John Feehrey, Speaker Hastert’s press secretary