Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Reporter Activism Actionable: Washington State Supreme Court Says Newspaper Can Transfer Reporter Who Became Politically Active

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Reporter Activism Actionable: Washington State Supreme Court Says Newspaper Can Transfer Reporter Who Became Politically Active

Article excerpt

Sandy Nelson's six-year fight to regain her reporter position with the Tacoma News Tribune suffered a major setback when the Washington state Supreme Court ruled the paper had a constitutional right to forbid her political activism.

Affirming a lower court's decision, the high court's majority held that Nelson's suit against the Tribune and its parent, McClatchy Newspapers Inc., for violation of the Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA), failed to override the defendants' First Amendment protection.

The opinion by Justice Richard Sanders conceded that state FCPA, which basically establishes limits on campaign contributions, also prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee for the latter's refusal to "remain politically abstinent."

However, the statute cannot be applied to the Tribune under the U.S. Constitution, he added.

FCPA, Sanders said, involves campaign finance, not civil rights or labor law. It prevents an employer from forcing workers to support company positions but does not fit the Nelson case.

Nelson, a Tribune employee since 1983 and a former education beat reporter, was shifted to the copy desk in 1990 for defying the newspaper's ethics code, which bans reporters from engaging in high-profile political activity.

A self-professed lesbian, Nelson has been actively engaged in promoting gay and lesbian rights, feminist causes and abortion rights. She is a member and organizer for Tacoma Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party.

In 1987, according to the opinion, a Tribune reporter and photographer informed management that Nelson was seen picketing for abortion rights outside a local hospital. She was warned then, Sanders wrote, that her appearance there compromised the paper's "appearance of objectivity."

"Nelson responded she would continue her public political activity anyway," the justice continued. On Aug.15, 1990, Tribune editors transferred Nelson to the copy desk until after the November election. The transfer became permanent when she refused to promise future adherence to the ethics code. the opinion said.

Remaining politically active, Nelson. in 1994. publicly opposed a ballot initiative, which would have prevented cities from extending civil rights to gays and lesbians. That same year her testimony before a state legislative committee in support of a gay and lesbian rights measure prompted a legislator to ask the News Tribune if she was lobbying on the paper's behalf, the opinion noted. …

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