On Thursday evening, Simon Ateba, a correspondent for Today News Africa at the White House, initiated legal action against White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and the U.S. Secret Service for their decision to deactivate his hard pass. Ateba alleges that Jean-Pierre violated his First Amendment right to press freedom and the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause by revoking his pass along with other journalists from smaller, non-corporate media outlets. These hard passes grant access to White House press events, including press conferences.
In February 2021, Ateba received his hard pass. However, he claimed that his questions and interview requests were repeatedly ignored. The White House announced on May 5 that it would be narrowing down the recipients of hard passes, resulting in over 440 reporters, including Ateba, losing their passes on August 1.
In the lawsuit’s introduction, it is argued that the First Amendment protects all individuals engaged in constitutionally protected press activities, not just an elite group of journalists. The lawsuit argues that the White House’s alteration of hard pass criteria was an overt attempt to exclude Ateba from press events. His legal representation contends that being denied access to White House venues where press conferences frequently take place infringes upon his press freedom.
The Center for American Liberty filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ateba. Despite these restrictions, Ateba remains committed to his work and vows to persist in his role. He emphasizes that no president, including Joe Biden, should be able to dictate which reporters cover them.
Simon Ateba stated in a recent release, “Today, President Joe Biden is in power. Tomorrow, it might be someone else. Regardless of who holds the office, no President should have the authority to decide who covers them. The arbitrary new rules target me; tomorrow, they might target you. This isn’t about just one individual; it’s about a free press, the cornerstone of democracy. In a democracy, people have a right to know, and journalists have a duty to tell.”
The lawsuit highlights past incidents where Ateba confronted Jean-Pierre with shouted questions after months of not receiving recognition. Notable confrontations include Ateba’s queries about the origins of COVID-19 and his interactions with guest speakers during press briefings.
Ateba’s legal representation argues for equal treatment, asserting that he deserves the same access to the White House and open communication with the Press Office as any other correspondent. The lawsuit also accuses Jean-Pierre and the Secret Service of violating the Administrative Procedure Act by not offering a valid justification for revoking Ateba’s pass.
The lawsuit draws parallels between Ateba’s situation and that of former CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who faced suspension by the Trump Administration for refusing to relinquish a microphone. Both Acosta and another journalist had their hard passes revoked by the Trump White House, but the courts later reinstated them.
Following the announcement of the revised hard pass policy in May, Ateba received a warning letter from the White House in July, threatening suspension or complete revocation of his pass. The lawsuit alleges that this new policy specifically targeted Ateba due to his high-profile interactions with the White House Press Secretary.
Ateba attempted to obtain press credentials from the Daily Press Gallery’s Standing Committee of Correspondents on June 5 but received no response. He also sought credentials from the Supreme Court Office in August, which were denied. Despite missing the July 31 renewal deadline, Ateba reapplied for a White House hard pass on August 4.
The lawsuit concludes by asserting that the absence of a hard pass severely damages Ateba’s ability to perform his job and violates his constitutional rights. It calls for intervention by the court to rectify this infringement.