Margaret Sullivan: Defend First Amendment principle. CNN should sue Trump for revoking press pass

CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta is a smart, tough reporter. He can also be a grandstander who seems to thrive on conflict with President Donald Trump, and doesn't always know when to stop his aggressive questioning.

But whether you like Acosta's style, it's clear the White House crossed a bright line Wednesday when it took away Acosta's "hard pass," which allows him the access he needs to cover the White House.

That action amounts to punishing a member of the press for doing his job of informing the public and then creating a false pretext about its retaliation.

Trump's dislike of Acosta is well known, and he took it to a new level at a wild news conference Wednesday, calling him "a rude, terrible person," whom CNN should be ashamed of employing.

To make matters worse, Sarah Sanders lied — and circulated a misleadingly edited video to back herself up — when she claimed later that Acosta was being punished for “placing his hands on a young woman.”

A White House staff member was directed to take a mic out of Acosta's hands; he certainly didn't readily give it up but he was polite, and he came into physical contact with her only for a brief moment as he moved his arm to shield the mic.

I've heard various suggestions about how CNN or the press corps should respond to this retaliation: There should be a boycott, a walkout, a news blackout. And I've read the strongly worded rebukes from the White House Correspondents' Association, from CNN and others.

But mere words aren't enough. And a boycott or blackout not only runs counter to the core idea that the reporters are there to inform the public, but it also would cede the briefings to the worst Trump sycophants.

No, something more is called for: CNN should sue the Trump White House on First Amendment grounds, and press-rights groups, along with other media organizations, should join in to create a united and powerful front. (Fox News, which benefited from the press corps' united front on its behalf in 2009, should pay that solidarity forward by getting on board.)

"This merits a forceful response, and a lawsuit would be reasonable," said Jonathan Peters, a historian who teaches at the University of Georgia Law School and is the press freedom correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review.

He told me by email that the stated rationale for revoking the pass "was clearly a sham," and the White House should be held accountable.

"Nothing educates the government so much as a damage award," he said. (The claim, he said, would likely take the form of an action under a statute which authorizes suits against government actors for, among other things, a deprivation of First Amendment rights.)

The legal question, he said, may be whether a journalist has a First Amendment right of access to information or places closed to the public but open generally to press — and some lower courts have said yes. (In Sherrill v. Knight, a DC Circuit Court ruled in 1977 that a reporter for the Nation shouldn’t have been denied a White House press pass.)

Bruce Brown, executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told me Thursday that CNN “now has a legitimate claim that there’s been retaliation — a line has been crossed here.”

His organization “absolutely” would support such an effort, he said, and suggested a larger framing might be wise — one that includes the Trump Justice Department’s efforts, now before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, to undo the $85 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner, which is CNN’s parent company.

Granted, a suit is far from a perfect solution. It wouldn't solve Acosta's immediate problem, and it might take months or even years to be resolved.

It also feeds the kind of anti-media controversy Trump loves to generate, and which benefits him politically.

And because a suit would generate news coverage, it would distract from important issues like Trump's putting a loyalist in the office of Attorney General after firing Jeff Sessions.

None of that is good.

But far, far worse is letting a bullying White House get away with retaliating against the press and then lying about it.

| Courtesy Margaret Sullivan, op-ed mug shot.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. @sulliview