HR Management & Compliance

Employer’s Free Speech Rights Upheld

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion this week denying the application of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to have eight employees of the Santa Barbara News-Press, who were fired for engaging in union activity, reinstated.

Although the NLRB found that the employees were in fact fired as a result of their pro-union activity, the Court ruled that employees, together with the union, engaged in a campaign to force the paper to give reporters and editors — rather than the paper’s owner and publisher — control over the paper’s content. The Court ruled that the paper’s First Amendment right to free speech trumped the employees’ rights under federal labor law.

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In 2004, the owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, Wendy McCraw, was concerned that the stories being published by the paper’s reporters and editors were biased. McCraw sent letters of warning to individual reporters and editors. In response, several newsroom employees resigned in protest.

Those employees who remained contacted the Graphics Communications Conference, a division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. After a heated organizing campaign, the newsroom employees voted overwhelmingly in favor of union representation.

However, during the campaign, McCraw had terminated eight newsroom employees because of the employees’ pro-union support and activities. The NLRB filed charges against the paper, and petitioned to have an injunction issued ordering that the eight fired employees be reinstated.

Agreeing with the Administrative Law Judge who initially ruled on the NLRB’s petition, the Ninth Circuit ruled that because the thrust of the employees’ union activities was to regain control over the editorial content published by the paper, reinstating the terminated employees would have the effect of violating the paper’s right to publish as it saw fit. Thus, the Court refused to order the paper to rehire the terminated employees.

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