Denied press access leads to First Amendment lawsuit against Attorney General Rokita

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comments from the Indiana Attorney General’s Office.

The feud between political commentator Abdul-Hakim Shabazz and Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita that began when Shabazz was barred from a press conference in October 2021 has spilled over into federal court.

A lawsuit, Abdul-Hakim Shabazz v. Todd Rokita, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the State of Indiana, 1:22-cv-268, which was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, is asking for an injunction against the Indiana attorney general that will allow Shabazz to attend and participate in press conferences and similar events to which only credentialed press members are invited.

Shabazz announced the lawsuit Monday on his website, IndyPolitics.org. He posted a personal account of the October incident and stated he had filed a lawsuit over the denial of access.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana also issued a press release Monday saying it had filed a lawsuit on behalf of journalist Shabazz against the attorney general for violating the First Amendment.

“… (T)he Attorney General’s decision to ban Mr. Shabazz from press events is not viewpoint neutral,” Ken Falk, legal director of ACLU of Indiana, said in a statement. “Blocking a journalist from attending a press conference because one does not agree with their reporting is a clear violation of the First Amendment. A free media functions as a watchdog that can investigate and report on government actions or wrongdoings.”

The Attorney General’s Office stood firm and said it will defend its actions.

“We will defend and potentially counterclaim against it aggressively since we are confident that our actions are legally sound and needed to protect staff against professional harassment while defending constituents from the ‘rumors, gossip and blatant innuendo’ Shabazz directly admits to peddling, along with his other non-journalism revenue streams,” Kelly Stevenson, spokesperson for the attorney general, said in an email. “As one of the most accessible and highly covered elected officials in the state, it’s clear that Hoosiers know what our Attorney General is doing on their behalf, and they appreciate it.”

According to the complaint, Shabazz submitted the required RSVP to attend the Oct. 14 press conference where Rokita announced his office was taking legal action against alleged “robocalling scammers.”

However, when Shabazz arrived at the attorney general’s office in the Indiana Statehouse, he was not permitted to enter the conference room where the press briefing was to be held. The staff person at the door indicated Shabazz was not a credentialed member of the media.

The complaint notes Shabazz holds a degree in broadcasting and journalism from Northern Illinois University as well as a law degree from St. Louis University. He has covered Indiana politics for the Indianapolis radio stations WXNT and WIBC and the Indianapolis television stations WRTV, WISH and Fox59. Also, he has written for the Indianapolis Business Journal, the Indianapolis Star, TheStatehouseFile.com and NUVO, according to the complaint.

In addition, Shabazz is the editor and publisher of IndyPolitics.Org, a political news website that he has owned and operated for 12 years. Also, he publishes a periodic newsletter, the Cheat Sheet, which is billed as a “compilation of pure gossip, rumor, and blatant innuendo.”

Although Shabazz has a media badge issued by the Indiana Department of Administration, the complaint states he was told by the Attorney General’s Office told he was not credentialed for the press conference and would have to watch the event via livestream.

That ignited the current feud.

Immediately, the Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote an open letter to the attorney general, calling his decision to bar Shabazz “reckless and unconstitutional.”

“These actions reflect a cavalier and indifferent regard for not only the First Amendment, but the Indiana state laws which you are sworn to uphold,” the letter continued. “We find these actions to be a threat to press freedom and to our very democracy.”

John Krull, director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, wrote a column for The Herald-Times, characterizing the “dust-up” between Rokita and “Indiana media personality” Shabazz as evidence of the attorney general’s alleged dislike of having to answer questions.

In a story in the Indianapolis Star, the Attorney General’s Office was reported as releasing a statement saying its press conferences are for “actual journalists” and not for “gossip columnists.”

“Shabazz, by his own admission, promotes disinformation so much so that he must disclaim his work as ‘gossip, rumor and blatant innuendo,’ in order to escape from being sued for defamation,” the Attorney General’s Office told the Star. “Therefore, an OAG press conference concerning a serious investigation is not an appropriate venue for Shabazz.”

In a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal, Shabazz wrote that Rokita could block anyone in the press corps from a press conference, and such an act is unacceptable. He concluded, “I hope Rokita will just come clean and admit his hatred for me is stronger than his love for the state and federal constitutions. I don’t think that’s going to happen without a court order.”

At the bottom of the column, he is identified as “an attorney, radio talk show host and political commentator, college professor and stand-up comedian.”

The complaint highlights that the press conference is not the first run-in between Shabazz and Rokita. In 2018, Rokita objected to Shabazz moderating a debate between the candidates to fill Dan Coats’ seat in the U.S. Senate.

According to the complaint, Rokita, who was running for Senate, said the debate “should be moderated by conservatives, not ‘liberal media figures’ and ‘liberal college professors.’”

The complaint states that after the October press conference, Shabazz asked the Attorney General’s Office for the criteria it used to determine who was credentialed media. He did not receive a response.

Also, Shabazz sent a public records request to the attorney general, seeking documents describing the reasons for approving or denying media requests as well as documents regarding the interviews Rokita had given since being sworn into office in January 2021. According to the complaint, the Attorney General’s Office only responded that it was reviewing the request.

“The Attorney General’s decision to ban Mr. Shabazz from press events is not reasonable given that Mr. Shabazz was and remains a credentialed member of the media,” the complaint states, adding that Rokita denied access either because of his personal antipathy toward Shabazz or his opinion that Shabazz’s reporting is too liberal. “In either event, the Attorney General’s decision to ban Mr. Shabazz from press events is not viewpoint neutral.

“At all times, General Rokita has acted under color of state law,” the complaint continues. “The actions of General Rokita are causing Mr. Shabazz irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy at law.”

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