CNN reporter Jim Acosta returns to the White House after press pass reinstated
CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta speaks outside the US District Court in Washington after a judge ordered his press credentials temporarily restored. (AFP / MANDEL NGAN)

The White House agreed Friday to allow CNN reporter Jim Acosta back in after a judge ruled that the star journalist was improperly banned following a testy exchange at a press conference with President Donald Trump.

Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said "in response to the court, we will temporarily reinstate the reporter's hard pass."

But she left open the possibility of seeking to remove Acosta's access later and said new rules would be imposed "to ensure fair and orderly press conferences."

Trump said that "rules and regulations" were being drafted to govern such gatherings, where the president or his representatives often accuse journalists -- Acosta in particular -- of being overly hostile.

"We have to practice decorum. We want total freedom of the press," Trump told reporters, adding later in an interview with Fox News: "If he misbehaves, we'll throw him out."

In fact, Trump himself frequently speaks harshly to reporters, for example last week telling another CNN correspondent several times that her question was "stupid."

He also routinely describes journalists he does not approve of, and the media in general, as "enemies of the people."

- Free speech rights -

Acosta often aggressively questions the White House on its attitude toward journalists and has been criticized even by some in the media for becoming part of the story he is meant to be covering.

On November 7, the day he was stripped of his pass, Acosta had riled Trump by refusing to give up the microphone at a news conference when he considered that Trump was evading his question.

Trump responded by branding Acosta a "rude, terrible person."

CNN cast the controversy as a question of free speech, which is protected under the constitution's first amendment.

In his ruling Friday, Judge Timothy Kelly stressed that he had only found the procedure for expelling Acosta illegal and that free speech did not enter the equation.

"I want to be very clear that I have not determined that the First Amendment was violated," he said in the Washington courtroom, adding that further hearings would be held on that aspect.

The US Justice Department's lawyer, James Burnham, argued that Acosta had "disrupted" last week's news conference and that "there is no First Amendment right to access the White House."

However, major media outlets took up Acosta's cause. Tellingly, Trump's most friendly outlet, Fox News, joined the suit calling for Acosta's pass to be returned.

"We are gratified with this result and we look forward to a full resolution in the coming days," CNN said in a statement. "Our sincere thanks to all who have supported not just CNN, but a free, strong and independent American press."

Shortly after the ruling, Acosta returned to the White House, telling fellow journalists that "this was a test."

"Journalists need to know that their First Amendment rights are sacred," he said.

- Unity -

The spat over Acosta has prompted an unusually public show of unity between America's powerful media organizations.

Those backing CNN's court action included the Associated Press, Bloomberg, First Look Media Works, Gannett, the National Press Club Journalism Institute, NBC News, The New York Times, Politico, Press Freedom Defense Fund, EW Scripps Company, USA Today and The Washington Post.

"Whether the news of the day concerns national security, the economy or the environment, reporters covering the White House must remain free to ask questions," the media groups said in a joint statement.

After the judge's ruling, the White House Correspondents' Association president, Olivier Knox, cheered a decision that "made it clear that the White House cannot arbitrarily revoke a White House press pass."

"We thank all of the news outlets and individual reporters who stood up in recent days for the vital role a free and independent news media plays in our republic," he said.