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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Shabazz: Shabazz v. Rokita

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On Feb. 7, I filed a lawsuit against Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita.

I filed suit regarding an incident that occurred in October 2021. As some of you may be aware, Rokita had a news conference that day on a robocall lawsuit, and to attend as media, you had to RSVP, which I did.

However, when I went to the Statehouse to the Attorney General’s Office, I was told by a spokesperson that I couldn’t come in because I was not credentialed media. I told him I was credentialed and showed him my badge issued to me by the Indiana Department of Administration. He told me that I still couldn’t get in because I wasn’t credentialed. So instead of turning into Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch, I went back to my office.

Please note I sent the office an e-mail asking what their criteria were for issuing credentials and got nothing, so I filed an open records request, and I am still waiting to have that request fulfilled.

When I first wrote about this, the IndyStar reached out to Rokita’s office to ask why I wasn’t allowed in. Their response was as follows …

“Our press conferences are meant for actual journalists reporting on real issues instead of 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. Therefore, an OAG press conference concerning a serious investigation is not an appropriate venue for Shabazz. As one of the most transparent offices in government, the OAG carries its press conferences live on Facebook, so all information presented during these events are available to be viewed virtually by Shabazz or anyone else.

Anyone can sign-up to receive our releases and advisories, but that does not mean all who receive these alerts will be credentialed or allowed to attend in-person events. Shabazz has not been denied any public records or been prevented from attending any official public-noticed meetings.”

So after some long thought, I got ahold of Ken Falk and the folks at the American Civil Liberties Union and told him that Rokita had violated my First Amendment rights as a journalist. Yes, I do write a gossip column, “The Cheat Sheet,” which is the Page 6 or Washington Whispers section of U.S. News and World Report of Indiana Politics, which, by the way, Rokita and his office subscribe. But like a lot of you know, I’ve been covering Indiana government and politics for nearly two decades now. I am the editor and publisher of Indy Politics. I write a regular column for IBJ, the Statehouse File and other publications. I host and produce a weekly statewide radio public affairs program and a monthly television show, “Indiana Issues,” and regularly contribute as a commentator for Fox 59, RTV 6 and WISH-TV. Oh, and there’s that radio program I’ve been doing for nearly 10 years at WIBC-FM and Emmis Communications. If that doesn’t make me a journalist, I’m not sure what does.

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. And while this may sound hard to believe, I didn’t do it because of any personal animosity with the current attorney general. I did it because if Rokita can ban me from his news conferences, he can do it to anyone in the press corps, 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 talk is all it is. By banning me from his news conferences, I can’t do my job. Yes, I can watch his news conferences on Facebook, but I can’t ask Rokita and his staff questions. I can’t do all the pre- and post-interaction required for my job.

And if you think about this from a more global perspective, if Rokita can ban me today, what’s to stop other elected officials from banning other media tomorrow? 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. For example, I’m sure a lot of you would like to know how much did it cost you, the taxpayers, to send Rokita on a trip to the border, attend a Trump rally and visit Bill Clinton’s boyhood home? Well, we can’t get those answers if Rokita can ban any of us from attending his press conferences.

As an attorney, I can tell you from firsthand experience that filing litigation is never a simple, cut-and-dry decision. A lot goes into it. That was true in this decision. To be frank, it would have been nice not to have to file at all. But then again, it would have been nicer had Rokita not banned me from attending his news conferences, and we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Abdul-Hakim Shabazz is an attorney, political commentator and publisher of IndyPolitics.org. You can email comments to him at abdul@indypolitics.org.

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