Jim Acosta vs Donald Trump: What does White House battle mean for press freedom in America?

Chris Riotta

CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta may have won the recent battle about his access to the White House, but it appears as though Donald Trump’s war against the “fake news” media is far from over.

On Friday, a federal judge — appointed by Mr Trump, nonetheless — ordered the White House to restore Mr Acosta’s credentials after they were revoked following clash with the president at a press conference earlier this month.

At the time, Mr Acosta refused to hand over a microphone to an intern, despite Mr Trump moving on to another reporter. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders then accused the reporter of using physical contact to prevent the intern from taking the microphone, sharing an allegedly edited video appearing to exaggerate Mr Acosta’s movements.

But the administration has already announced its intention to continue barring the CNN journalist from White House grounds once a 14-day temporary restraining order has expired. Here’s what the continued controversy could mean in terms of the larger discussion surrounding press freedoms in the United States:

Can the White House bar journalists from press briefings?

Technically, Mr Trump could continue demanding his White House pull Mr Acosta’s hard pass all he wants, likely triggering an endless cycle of court hearings and legal disputes between the administration and CNN.

But Friday’s decision likely signalled the judge — who was planning to announce a final ruling on the case this week — had already sided with the likes of CNN and other media outlets who supported its stance in amicus briefs, including Fox News.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Burnham argued in court that Mr Trump had total authority to revoke anyone’s passes as he pleases, suggesting the White House is his home rather than a public facility.

Attorneys for CNN argued the opposite, saying the First Amendment does not allow for a president to determine which journalists may and may not enter the White House.

“This government is now taking the position that the president can do anything he wants, and ban journalists,” Theodore J Boutrous Jr, a lawyer for CNN and Mr Acosta, said in court, adding, “no president has ever disregarded the First Amendment and due process before.”

Will there be new rules for reporters covering the White House?

The White House has announced it’s intention to create new policies that would establish a standard of decorum at future press briefings.

There currently are no written guidelines on how reporters are expected to behave and interact with the president during press briefings; establishing those policies could prove legally complicated and debatable among the courts, depending on their specificity and restrictions.

In a letter to Mr Acosta, the White House claimed he failed to follow “basic, commonsense practices” that “are necessary for orderly press conferences that are fair to all journalists in attendance.”

But CNN’s attorneys responded that the administration was attempting “to punish Mr. Acosta based on a retroactive application of unwritten ‘practices’ among journalists covering the White House.”

It remains unclear what those rules might eventually look like, or whether they would even hold in federal courts — especially when it seems even Mr Trump’s judicial appointees have a limited view of the administration’s authority when it comes to journalists covering the White House.

What does the case mean for press freedom and the future of White House coverage?

There is no doubt Friday’s decision was a win for press freedoms under an administration that has spent the last two years railing against mainstream media and journalists nationwide.

And it wasn’t only a win for the First Amendment; the case actually received much of its support from the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees due process in interactions with the government. CNN’s lawyers seemingly successfully argued Mr Trump had abandoned all due process in revoking Mr Acosta’s pass, effectively barring him from his place of work.

The network has called for an emergency hearing after the administration threatened again Monday to suspend Mr Acosta’s pass, writing in a Monday court filing the White House was attempting “retroactive due process” while “continuing to violate the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.”

The White House has acknowledged Mr Acosta’s right to continue working within the White House during the temporary restraining order, saying in a letter the president was “aware of this preliminary decision and concurs.”