Chronicle of Abdul-Hakim Shabazz: My Lawsuit Against the Attorney General Defends Freedom of the Press | Opinion
On Monday, I filed a federal lawsuit against Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita.
I filed a complaint because of an incident that occurred last October. As some of you may know, Rokita had a press conference that day regarding a robocall trial and to attend as media you had to RSVP, which I have done.
However, when I went to the Statehouse at the Attorney General’s office, a spokesperson told me that I could not enter because I was not accredited for media. I told him I was accredited and showed him my badge issued by the Indiana Department of Administration. He told me that I still could not enter because I was not accredited.
So instead of turning into a sketch from Monty Python’s Argument Clinic, I went back to my desk.
Please note that I emailed the office asking about their criteria for issuing credentials and got nothing, so I filed an open records request, and am waiting always that this request is satisfied.
When I first wrote about it, the Indy Star contacted Rokita’s office to ask why I wasn’t allowed in. Their response was as follows:
“Our press conferences are for real journalists who cover real issues rather than gossip columnists. Shabazz, by his own admission, promotes misinformation so much that he has to dismiss his work as “gossip, rumor and blatant insinuations” in order to escape prosecution for defamation.
“Therefore, an OAG press conference regarding a serious investigation is not an appropriate venue for Shabazz.
“As one of the most transparent offices in government, the OAG hosts its press conferences live on Facebook, so all information presented at these events can be viewed virtually by Shabazz or anyone else.
“Anyone can sign up to receive our releases and notices, but that does not mean that everyone who receives these alerts will be accredited or allowed to attend events in person.
“Shabazz has not been denied any public records or barred from attending official publicly rated meetings.”
So after much consideration, I got hold of Ken Falk and the folks at the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and told him that Rokita had violated my First Amendment rights as a journalist. The ACLU State Chapter sued on my behalf.
Yes, I write a gossip column, “The Cheat Sheet” newsletter, which is part of my Indy Politics site and the equivalent of Page 6 of the New York Post or the Washington Whispers section of US News & World Report . And by the way, Rokita and her office subscribe to this newsletter.
But as many of you know, I’ve been covering Indiana government and politics for nearly two decades now. I’m the editor and publisher of Indy Politics. I write a regular column for the Indiana Business Journal, The Statehouse File and other publications.
I host and produce a weekly statewide public affairs program and a monthly television show, “Indiana Issues”, and contribute regularly as a commentator for Fox 59, RTV 6 and WISH-TV.
Oh, and there’s this radio show I’ve been doing for almost 10 years at WIBC-FM and Emmis Communications. If that doesn’t make me a journalist, I don’t know what does.
So when I was kicked out of Rokita’s press conferences, I did what any American would do; I exercised my divine right to sue. And while it may seem hard to believe, I didn’t do it because of personal animosity with the current attorney general. I did it because if Rokita can ban me from his press conferences, he can ban anyone in the press, and that’s not a good thing.
Yes, the Attorney General can talk about having one of the most transparent offices in state government, but that’s just talking. By banishing me from his press conferences, I can’t do my job. Yes, I can watch his press conferences on Facebook, but I can’t ask Rokita and his team questions. I can’t do all the pre and post interactions required for my job.
And if you think about it from a bigger perspective, if Rokita can ban me today, what’s to stop other elected officials from banning other media tomorrow? For our government and our political system to work, the press must be able to do its job, which is to question the authorities.
For example, I’m sure many of you would like to know how much did it cost you, the taxpayers, to send Rokita on a trip to the border, to attend a Trump rally and to visit the Bill Clinton’s childhood home? Well, we can’t get those answers if Rokita can ban any of us from attending his press conferences.
As a lawyer, I can tell you from first-hand experience that filing a lawsuit is never a dry, simple decision. A lot of stuff goes into it. It was true in this decision.
To be frank, it would have been nice not to have to deposit at all. But then again, it would have been nicer if Rokita hadn’t banned me from attending his press conferences, because if he hadn’t, we wouldn’t be there in the first place.