Newspaper has First Amendment right to limit activism
WASHINGTON–The state Supreme Court in Olympia ruled in late February that the First Amendment allows a newspaper to forbid its reporters to engage in political activism.
While finding that the Washington State “Fair Campaign Practices Act” does prohibit an employer from discriminating against an employee on the basis of the employee’s refusal to remain “politically abstinent,” the court ruled that the statute cannot apply to the newspaper under the free press clause of the First Amendment.
The case was brought by Sandra Nelson, a women’s and gay and lesbian rights activist, who sued the Tacoma News Tribune after she was relieved of her reporting assignment.
In 1990, after seven years with the News Tribune, Nelson was transferred from her position of education reporter to swing shift copy editor. According to court documents, the paper’s managers told her that her increasing involvement in a local ballot initiative violated its ethics code, which regulates activity deemed to present an apparent or actual conflict of interest. The paper said that Nelson’s activities could raise concern about the newspaper’s objectivity.
Nelson’s transfer became permanent when she refused to promise she would conform to the ethics code. During next five years she remained politically active. Both her requests for reinstatement as reporter and her applications for other reporting positions were refused.
In 1995, Nelson filed suit in Tacoma Superior Court, alleging that the News Tribune had violated the Fair Campaign Practices Act, violated her constitutional rights and wrongfully transferred her, resulting in a breach of employment contract. The trial court dismissed Nelson’s statutory and constitutional claims. The contract claims were not dismissed.
The Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court’s reasoning and held that the Fair Campaign Practices Act does apply in Nelson’s case. The high court agreed, however, that the statute unconstitutionally infringes on the News Tribune’s rights under the First Amendment. The court stressed that editorial control is a necessary component of the free press and that editorial integrity and credibility are core objectives of that control. Therefore, any state law infringing on editorial control is unconstitutional.
The court also affirmed that since the conflict-of-interest policy in the News Tribune’s ethics code was designed for the express purpose of supporting the newspaper’s credibility, the policy merits protection under the free press clauses of the state and federal constitutions. The court determined that Nelson’s state law entitlement was “trumped” by the First Amendment free press clause. (Sandra Nelson v. McClatchy Newspapers; Newspaper’s Counsel: P. Cameron De Vore, Seattle)