A ruling against the P-G could further protect reporters against racial discrimination | Labor | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A ruling against the P-G could further protect reporters against racial discrimination

click to enlarge A ruling against the P-G could further protect reporters against racial discrimination (2)
CP Photo Illustration: Abbie Adams; CP Photo Source: Lisa Cunningham
In 2020, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffer Alexis Johnson sued her former employer over an alleged civil rights violation carried out by the newspaper.

Johnson, who is Black and has since landed a job at VICE, was barred by management from covering the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests after she posted a tweet comparing the mess typically made outside of Kenny Chesney concerts in Pittsburgh with the property damage that occurred following a protest in honor of George Floyd.

A recent ruling in Johnson’s case could have larger implications, possibly providing extra legal protections for journalists.

In its argument to dismiss the case, the Post-Gazette claimed the First Amendment protected the paper from Johnson’s discrimination claim, and that the paper was making editorial decisions when disciplining Johnson.

When Pittsburgh City Paper covered this story in December 2020, University of Pittsburgh law professor and constitutional scholar Jerry Dickinson told CP the Post-Gazette’s Motion to Dismiss was rare legal territory, adding that it isn’t common for a media company to say the First Amendment can trump anti-discrimination cases.

On Aug. 17, U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan ruled against the Post-Gazette’s Motion to Dismiss. Ranjan, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, ruled that the Post-Gazette was making a personnel decision.

"While the First Amendment provides a publisher absolute discretion to refrain from publishing content, this discretion does not extend to allow a publisher to make any and all discriminatory personnel decisions," wrote Ranjan in his ruling.

Johnson’s lawyer, Sam Cordes, told Law360 that the Post-Gazette's arguments would have let the paper create a "segregated newsroom" and claim immunity under the First Amendment.

According to Dickinson, this is “an important ruling,” not only for Johnson herself, but for other journalists moving forward who might face similar charges from owners. He says the ruling, which was made in federal court, should provide additional precedent in discrimination cases made by journalists against their employers.

“It means the P-G can't short-circuit accountability by hiding behind the First Amendment for protection from its discriminatory actions,” says Dickinson. “There are clearly enough facts in dispute that affords the case to move forward. The backdrop to this case was the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice protests after the murder of George Floyd. We don't want the First Amendment weaponized against racial progress. That's dangerous."