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Every Journalist Is at Risk at the Trump White House

President Donald Trump making an announcement at the White House in July of 2018.

Last week, the White House announced that it was suspending CNN reporter Jim Acosta's press pass. It is unclear when or if his pass will be restored.

Speaking of the decision to revoke Acosta's access, Trump suggested that other reporters might also lose access, stating "When you're in the White House, this is a very sacred place to be, this is a very special place. You have to treat the White House with respect, you have to treat the presidency with respect."

What is respect? Does a journalist who challenges one of the White House's many distorted facts show a lack of respect? What about one who asks a pointed question? What will the White House's justification be the next time it targets a journalist? Will the White House even feel the need to provide one?

In such a climate, every journalist is at risk, as is a free and independent press.

Freedom of the press is a foundational principle in this country, enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution in 1791, but was recognized by the people years earlier.

In 1734, John Peter Zenger, a German immigrant to New York and publisher of the New York Weekly Journal, was arrested for seditious libel for publishing articles in opposition to the government. Articles in the New York Weekly Journal had criticized the British colonial governor of New York and his administration. Upon a trial in 1735, a jury found him not guilty, taking into account that the articles had reported truth, even though truth was immaterial to the charge. At stake in Zenger's case was the core of a free press--the ability to truthfully criticize and challenge the government without punishment.

In another iconic case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 recognized "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." And, in 1971, when the government challenged the publication of the Pentagon Papers, in his concurring opinion in New York Times Co. v. United States, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black noted, "The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government."

The suspension of Acosta's access is not, by any means, the first action by the White House to jeopardize a free and independent press in America. To the contrary, shortly after President Trump took office, in February of 2017, the White House excluded from a press briefing the New York Times, New York Daily News, CNN, Politico, the Los Angeles Times, Buzz Feed, BBC, the Huffington Post, and the Guardian, news organizations critical of President Trump and his administration. President Trump and other members of his administration have repeatedly accused reporters of failing to report the truth and have undermined the media with accusations of "fake news."

Recently the Pen American Center, Inc. filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York challenging President Trump's actions intended to stifle news organizations and journalists whose reporting has not been to his liking. The suspension of Acosta's access to the White House should not go unchallenged. CNN this week correctly sued President Trump and others over Acosta's suspension of his press pass. It goes against the very essence of the First Amendment to exclude journalists from the White House based on their views.

A free and independent press protects the individual freedoms we hold dear and the institutions that make us strong as a nation.

Norman Siegel and Kate Fletcher are lawyers at the firm of Siegel Teitelbaum & Evans.