Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

Federal Court Says Newspaper Has the Right to Fire Journalists -- Under the First Amendment

"The First Amendment affords a publisher - not a reporter - absolute authority to shape a newspaper's content," Judge writes.

Tuesday in California, the Federal Appeals Court ruled against a group of journalists at the Santa Barbara News-Press who had been fired for demanding editorial integrity and a union. Rather than uphold their rights both to unionize and to speak out against bad editorial practices, the federal court instead said their dismissals were protected by the publisher's First Amendment Rights to print whatever she wanted.

The dispute began in 2006, when nearly all the top journalists and editors at the Santa Barbara News-Press quit because the paper's owner and publisher Wendy McCaw was interfering in the editorial content. As Melinda Burns, one former journalist at the paper wrote in the Santa Barbara Independentabout that period:
"Spring had barely turned to summer that year when Editor Jerry Roberts and four other editors resigned, citing what they said was McCaw’s unethical interference in newsgathering and reporting. A dozen reporters quit, too, including one who had been covering a neighborhood dispute over the development plans of Rob Lowe, an actor friend of McCaw’s who wanted to build a mansion on a vacant lot in Montecito. Following standard newsroom practice, the reporter reported the address of the lot. Lowe’s assistant called the paper to complain, saying Lowe was going to cancel his subscription. McCaw fired off harsh letters of reprimand to the reporter and three editors, who all eventually resigned. Those of us who chose to stay in the newsroom knew we needed a written contract to protect our job security and integrity as journalists from McCaw’s arbitrary attacks."
So, as Burns writes, the remaining journalists reached out to the Teamsters and joined the union. When McCaw refused to recognize their affiliation with the Teamsters, the newsroom held a union vote and won. Soon after, McCaw fired eight journalists (including Burns).
On Tuesday, the Appeals Court upheld that this firing was legal, and that to force McCaw to rehire the fired journalists would be a violation of her Freedom of Speech rights. 
"The First Amendment affords a publisher - not a reporter - absolute authority to shape a newspaper's content," Judge Stephen Williams wrote for a three-judge panel.
Asthe Santa Barbara Independent notes, the court's judges are overwhelmingly conservative--a bias clearly reflected in this ruling.
"The Court of Appeals panel — comprised of three conservative judges, two nominated by President Ronald Reagan, the other by President George H. W. Bush — said the analysis by the NLRB was “tainted by its mistaken belief that employees had a statutorily protected right to engage in collective action aimed at limiting Ampersand’s editorial control over the News-Press.”"
If you were wondering whether rich people can buy full control of the "news" in this country, the answer is, apparently, yes--and they can abuse workers' rights in the process, too.

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of "A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home," forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.