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Reporter activism restriction upheld to ensure neutrality

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Reporter activism restriction upheld to ensure neutrality05/16/95 WASHINGTON--Newspapers retain the right to prohibit a reporter's political activism to ensure neutral…


WASHINGTON–Newspapers retain the right to prohibit a reporter’s political activism to ensure neutral reporting of the news, according to a Pierce County Superior Court judge in Tacoma who ruled against an education reporter for The News Tribune of Tacoma in early May.

The judge dismissed reporter Sandy Nelson’s claim that the newspaper had violated the state’s campaign practices law, which prohibits employer discrimination against employees who refuse to support or oppose political causes or candidates on the advice of their employers. The judge held that the law did not apply.

Removing Nelson from her job in 1990 as education reporter and assigning her to a copy editor position was not an attempt by the paper to impose its political views on Nelson, the judge held.

David Zeeck, executive editor of The News Tribune, said that while the case presents a free speech dilemma, newspapers cannot allow reporters to actively voice their political positions because it would compromise the paper’s standard of neutral reporting. “If you allowed every reporter to be politically active, it would whittle away at the public’s sense of its newspaper’s neutrality,” Zeeck said.

Nelson and The News Tribune will ask the state Supreme Court to review the free speech issues of the trial court ruling in order to set a clear standard for newspapers and reporters. Nelson will argue that her removal violates public policy by limiting her free participation in the political process, according to Nelson’s attorney, Paul Chuey of Tacoma.

Nelson drew the attention of her bosses in 1990 when she led a campaign to pass a gay-rights initiative while working as a reporter. Though not reporting on the political activities surrounding the initiative, Nelson ultimately had to be approached by the daily for coverage of the issue.

Nelson also has been active in women’s rights, gay rights and socialism during her 15-year journalism career, according to the Associated Press. (Nelson v. The News Tribune; Newspaper Counsel: P. Cameron Devore, Seattle)

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.