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ACLU joins journalist Abdul-Hakim Shabazz in First Amendment lawsuit against AG Rokita

Last year, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita denied journalist Abdul-Hakim Shabazz (above) entry to a press conference through a spokesperson, who said he was not “credentialed media.” Now Shabazz has filed a suit against the AG.

Shabazz has been covering politics in Indiana for nearly two decades. Despite presenting state-issued media credentials, Shabazz was not allowed into the news conference and is still barred from the attorney general’s press conferences.

On Monday, he joined the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in suing Rokita in U.S. District Court, alleging a violation of the First Amendment. The attorney general’s office released a response.

“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,” a spokesperson for the attorney general said.

The attorney general’s office told The Indianapolis Star in November that Shabazz is a “gossip columnist” who “promotes disinformation so much that he must disclaim his own work as ‘gossip, rumor and blatant innuendo’ in order to escape from being sued for disinformation.”

In response to the AG office’s claims that the decision to bar Shabazz from press events was to protect staff against professional harassment, Shabazz said he did not know what the statement was referring to.

“I really don’t know what they’re talking about because I just ask straightforward—some people consider them tough—questions,” Shabazz said.

Shabazz went on to list other Indiana officeholders he’s interviewed during his time at the Statehouse that have had no issue with his reporting. He said the other officials, including Gov. Eric Holcomb, Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray and House Speaker Todd Huston, do not feel that their staffs need protection from him, and he asks them questions frequently.

“I’m really not sure what they have to protect their staff from,” he said.

The “rumors, gossip and blatant innuendo” blurb comes from a newsletter Shabazz writes as part of his site Indy Politics, titled “The Cheat Sheet,” which jokingly includes the disclaimer quoted by the attorney general’s office. The AG’s office subscribes to the newsletter, according to the lawsuit.

Shabazz also serves as publisher and editor of Indy Politics, writes columns for Indianapolis publications, appears in local newscasts and hosts a weekly show on WIBC-FM and Indiana Issues, a statewide radio public affairs program. Shabazz’s column regularly appears in TheStatehouseFile.com.

“If that doesn’t make me a journalist, I’m not sure what does,” Shabazz said in a column published on his site Monday. “So when I was barred from Rokita’s news conferences, I did what any American would do; I exercised my God-given right to file suit.”

Rokita has criticized the press in the past. In a series of Feb. 4 tweets following news interest in his recent visit to the southern U.S. border, during which he also stopped at a Donald Trump rally, the attorney general used the phrase “liberal fake news” to criticize the media investigating the cost of the trip. Shabazz was one of many Indiana journalists who filed a public records request to find out how the AG’s trip was funded.

The lawsuit suggests Rokita’s decision to ban Shabazz is due to a personal dislike or a belief that his reporting is too “liberal”—or perhaps both.

In 2018, while Rokita was a Republican vying to be the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate, Shabazz moderated a debate between the potential candidates. According to the lawsuit, Rokita objected to Shabazz moderating the debate, calling him a “liberal media figure” and “liberal college professor.”

Kenneth Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana, is representing Shabazz in the lawsuit.

“The idea of excluding members of the press because of disagreements with them, either personally or what have you, is concerning,” Falk said. “We depend on a free and independent press for information.”

In response to the AG’s statement that the office may seek a counterclaim, both Shabazz and Falk said they did not know what the office could file a claim for. The current lawsuit is just seeking an injunction to allow Shabazz at future events, Falk said.

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said the case could lead to a debate about who is considered a journalist, since the AG’s office is arguing that Shabazz “peddles gossip.”

“It appears that the attorney general has singled out Abdul-Hakim Shabazz to not be eligible to be part of that media,” Key said. “And that may open up a question as far as the courts are going to decide who or who [does] not [make] up the press.”

On a local level, Shabazz said nothing is stopping Rokita from barring other members of the Indiana press corps from his conferences. But he said the issue can also be part of a more global problem.

“If Rokita can ban me today, what’s to stop other elected officials from banning other media tomorrow?” Shabazz said in his column. “For our government and political system to work, the press has to be able to do its job, which is to question those in authority.”

The Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists sent the attorney general a letter requesting a conversation about press freedom after the incident last October. The group says it has not received a response.

Taylor Wooten is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.