Journalist Simon Ateba is suing the White House for violating the First Amendment and alleged discrimination after "leaving biased journalists in charge of who gets to ask the tough questions" during daily press briefings.
Mr. Ateba, who is the founder and chief White House correspondent for Today News Africa—which covers politics in the United States and relations between the United States and African nations—announced the legal action on Aug. 8.
The lawsuit (pdf) was filed by the Center for American Liberty, a nonprofit organization defending free speech, on his behalf after Mr. Ateba was banned from attending daily press briefings at the White House.
"A free and robust press is vital to a healthy democracy," the lawsuit states.
"The Framers understood this to be an unassailable truth, enshrining protection of the free press in the First Amendment as an essential check on government power. This constitutional safeguard is at its zenith when the government itself is the subject of scrutiny. "
The lawsuit goes on to explain how the White House Press Office, in 2021, loosened the requirements for reporters to obtain "hard passes" to attend daily press briefings and receive unlimited access to White House press facilities as part of efforts to increase access for smaller media publications and promote a free press.
Mr. Ateba, according to the lawsuit, applied for and received the "hard pass" in February 2021.
From then on, his lawyers wrote, Mr. Ateba regularly attended White House briefings and raised questions that were repeatedly dismissed or ignored by White House officials, even when his questions were sent via letter directly to the White House Press Office.
"Regardless of what the questions are, the White House generally ignores them," the lawsuit states.
"This refusal to provide information to Mr. Ateba makes it increasingly difficult for Mr. Ateba to obtain the necessary information needed for the quality of coverage he seeks to provide his readers."
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington on July 28, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
The lawsuit claims that Mr. Ateba has been allowed to attend President Joe Biden’s press conferences just once in nearly three years but that when he did, he was denied access. For the press conferences he was allowed to attend, he was "not allowed to ask a question," the lawsuit states.
Mr. Ateba also requested an opportunity to interview President Biden in the run-up to an African Leaders Summit at the White House in December 2022 but those requests were "completely ignored," his lawyers said.
"After months of not receiving responses to written questions from the White House and not receiving an opportunity to ask questions in the briefing room, Mr. Ateba resorted to one of the only options available to him: speaking up during press briefings," his lawyers wrote.
"Just like his colleagues, Mr. Ateba would engage in the scrum, shouting his questions to the White House Press Secretary questions during briefings. And on a few occasions, when the Press Secretary would not acknowledge him, Mr. Ateba would speak over his fellow journalists," they wrote, noting that ultimately, the White House "did not appreciate this breach of decorum."
The lawsuit references a number of incidents, including on March 20, 2023, when Mr. Ateba began shouting before White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre introduced the cast of the Apple TV show "Ted Lasso," during a press conference to discuss the president’s mental health initiatives.
Before the press secretary could finish introducing the cast members, Mr. Ateba began questioning why he had not received any responses to his written inquiries or been given the opportunity to ask a question during the press briefing, prompting a tense exchange to occur between himself and Ms. Jean-Pierre.
In another tense exchange in June, Mr. Ateba interrupted a fellow correspondent during a daily press briefing to ask again why his attempt to receive answers from the White House regarding its refusal to respond to his questions had been ignored. Although his colleagues urged him to stop questioning the press secretary, Mr. Ateba did not, resulting in another fierce debate in which Ms. Jean-Pierre branded him "incredibly rude."
"Since December 2021, Mr. Ateba has asserted himself during the press briefings on a number of occasions. The mainstream media coverage of these incidents has largely painted Mr. Ateba as disruptive, disrespectful, and even seeking attention for himself," Mr. Ateba's lawyers wrote.
"But Mr. Ateba is simply seeking answers to his questions, which the White House refuses to give."
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington on June 26, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
'Administration’s Attempt to Shut Down Reporters'
In May, the White House Press Office ultimately revised its credentialing criteria for a media hard pass, requiring journalists to receive credentials from either the Supreme Court or one of the four Congressional Press Galleries, making it significantly harder for them to receive the pass, the lawsuit states.
The move, according to the White House, was down to security and decorum concerns.
Lawyers for Mr. Ateba claim he objected to the new hard pass requirements and requested the White House delay implementing the criteria for at least one year, thus granting him more time to fulfill all of the new requirements.
That request, according to his lawyers, was ignored.
"Additional actions taken by the White House confirm that the new hard pass criteria targeted Mr. Ateba," they wrote, noting that their client had also received a written warning from the White House regarding his conduct during daily press briefings.
Lawyers for Mr. Ateba claim the new credentialing criteria violate the First Amendment’s press freedom guarantee and are discriminatory against him because they are specifically "designed to exclude Mr. Ateba from eligibility."
They also said the Secret Service has so far "failed to provide any reason to justify" terminating Mr. Ateba’s hard pass, let alone a "good reason" or "reasoned explanation."
"Instead, the Secret Service appears to be relying on a policy issue by the White House Press Office, which likewise provides no explanation for the change in policy," his lawyers state.
Mr. Ateba is asking the court to declare that the White House Press Office’s revised credentialing requirements are unconstitutional and temporarily ban the White House from enforcing the new requirements.
In a statement announcing the lawsuit, the Center for American Liberty, said, "It is clear that the White House changed its credentialing requirements specifically to exclude Simon, in direct violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press."
"If the media are going to be truly free to hold the government to account—regardless of who is in the White House—we must stop this Administration’s attempt to shut down reporters like Simon," the organization added.
The Epoch Times has contacted the White House for comment.