A longtime reporter, blogger, and gadfly's banishment from certain mayoral press conferences is on the verge of erupting into a legal battle likely to raise questions about the First Amendment rights of journalists and the definition of a journalist.
Sixteen City Council members are calling for the reporter, Rafael Martinez-Alequin, who for years has rankled the city's mayors with pointed, provocative questions, to be admitted to press conferences in the mayor's Blue Room. They say in a signed letter sent to Mayor Bloomberg that it is unacceptable and unjust for him to be barred. Most of the signatories are members of the council's Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus.
"Mr. Martinez-Alequin has been an outstanding and forthright reporter," the letter says. "It is important that we retain such qualified reporters."
Mr. Martinez-Alequin is awaiting an appointment with the New York City Police Department to renew his press pass, which expired in January, to allow him to return to the Blue Room. He said he plans to sue the city or the police department if his application is denied.
"I think it's a done deal that I'm not going to get it," he said yesterday. "I might not go to the Blue Room, but I will cover every word that the mayor says."
Mr. Martinez-Alequin has written from City Hall for about 24 years, covering mayors Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg for a small newspaper he started in 1983, now titled New York City Free Press. In recent years, it has been published only on the Internet. Mr. Martinez-Alequin writes a blog associated with the title.
The police department's deputy commissioner of public information office, which issues approximately 8,000 press passes each year, said credentials are not issued to Internet reporters unless the Web site they write for is affiliated with an established newspaper.
Mr. Martinez-Alequin, 74, has long been a thorn in the side of the city's elected officials, repeatedly posing combative questions about politicians' personal lives, the war in Iraq, and their positions on sensitive issues. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, he considers himself a champion for the poor, and for black and Latino residents.
Mr. Koch, the first mayor to field inquiries from Mr. Martinez-Alequin, said questions posted by the writer were argumentative and not intended to elicit information.
They were designed "to engage in a controversy or debate, which is sometimes objectionable when you don't have the time," Mr. Koch said.
A lawyer and former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who is representing Mr. Martinez-Alequin, Norman Siegel, said there is no reason his client should be barred from any press conferences.
"Everyone knows he's a gadfly. Everyone knows he is one of these quintessential New York City characters," he said. "Other mayors have dealt with him. No one has ever banned him. What does that say about them?"
A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, Stuart Loeser, disputed the contention that Mr. Martinez-Alequin has been banned from the Blue Room. He said a well attended press conference last month reminded officials that seating there is limited. From now on, only credentialed reporters will be allowed to attend press conferences with limited seating, he said.
Mr. Siegel said he expected the dispute to have been resolved by now. He would not say how he plans to proceed if the police department refuses to issue his client a press pass.
"If they do, we have some very serious First Amendment issues," he said. "They know I'm involved and I have a reputation. I will put the whole system in play."