NEWSROOM HERETIC: “I stood up in the name of queer rights–and got punished in the name of free speech.”

NEWSROOM HERETIC: “I stood up in the name of queer rights–and got punished in the name of free speech.”

by Sandy Nelson

Award-winning reporter Sandy Nelson holding a poster from the 1990 gay-rights ballot initiative in Tacoma, Washington.
“The working press is paid to keep its head down and its mouth shut on a whole host of political issues. Mostly, to keep their jobs, the journalists comply. I didn’t.”

“Sandy Nelson is unusual among a growing number of chastised and punished journalists for her determination to make a public claim that she is entitled to exercise all the rights of any person. It is her opinion about reporter loyalty, about speech and political activity, that has to endure if journalism can play any role at all informing us.”
Roger Simpson, assistant professor of communications, University of Washington

“If Nelson loses, the chilling effect of the precedent would be substantial. Every community needs all its residents — journalists included — to be free to participate in the political process. For all the rhetoric about professional ethics, it is not ethical to force reporters to choose between their careers and acting on their political principles.”
–Editorial board member Terry Tang in the Seattle Times

“With hardly a whimper, reporters have become political eunuchs. They need someone to say that giving up off-duty First Amendment rights is too great a price to pay for being a reporter.”
Frank Wetzel, retired managing editor of the Bellevue, Washington, Journal American, in a story about Nelson’s case in Eastside Week

“The punitive action against reporter Sandra Nelson is unjustified. It has robbed Ms. Nelson of her constitutional rights as a citizen and has done so without any demonstrated evidence that she has been unable to function as a competent and fair-minded…reporter for her paper.”
Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, in a letter to the National Lawyers Guild

I work in a profession that would not exist without the constitutional guarantee of free speech. Yet my employer — The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington — demanded that I give up that freedom for myself because my “calling” as a journalist requires political abstinence.

Newspaper reporting in the United States is rooted in revolutionary traditions of muckraking, hell-raising, and righteous advocacy of freedom and liberty. Yet my employer treats me like a heretic because I reject the myth of the working journalist as an impartial observer.

I never signed away my rights as a citizen when I became a professional journalist 16 years ago. I never surrendered my right to political self-defense in the face of attacks from the government or the right wing — so why should I make an exception if I am attacked by the management of the communications medium I work for? When my employer demanded that I choose between my two greatest passions — writing and my off-the-job political activism — I decided it was time to fight for my own rights of citizenship and free speech.

Putting on Appearances

I had no premonition I would be banished from reporting assignments to the copy desk. There were none of the usual newsroom whisperings of impending change. Then one summer afternoon, August 25, 1990, I was called in to a dingy newsroom office by managing editor Norm Bell and assistant managing editor Jan Brandt. While Brandt sat stone-faced and mute, Bell leaned back casually with his hands clasped behind his head and told me my days as a reporter were over — at least until the November election ended my involvement on a Tacoma ballot issue to restore anti-discrimination protections for sexual minorities. My exile — though he never called it that — would be a desk job, polishing up the writing of on-the-scene reporters, writing photo captions and headlines.

I loved working as an assignment reporter, and I protested. I had been involved in the queer-rights campaign for more than two years without one complaint from a subscriber or advertiser. I pointed to many other reporters who were active in high-profile community, school, religious, and civic causes.

When I challenged Bell and Brandt, they could not deny that objectivity in the news business is a farce and that reporters are humans with biases, regardless of whether they act on them. But clearly what was important to them was the appearance of objectivity. It just didn’t look right to newsroom honchos that one of their reporters was out there gathering signatures and knocking on doors for her own civil rights.

Nothing I said would change management’s mind. The deal was done, the meeting ended. Since The News Tribune was purchased by McClatchy, Inc., in an asset sale in 1986, all labor contracts had been abrogated. Therefore I would need to take my grievance outside that newsroom — and probably outside the newspaper. My fight would require help from coworkers and the public. And going public meant breaking the silence about McClatchy and its campaign to break all News Tribune unions. For that, management would never forgive me.

But I wanted fairness, not forgiveness. I was fighting for my very right to exist in a profession to which I had devoted four years of education and a decade of work. I’d be damned if they would sideline or censor or blacklist me without a fight.

Nelson (arms up) in a 1990 gay-pride parade with Committee to Protect Tacoma Human Rights. Months later her reporting tasks were axed. “If you work for the news media, can you be made to wear a muzzle during your free time? Is that what the Constitution in cahoots with capitalism gives the press the freedom to do?”

In It to Win

After more than 16 years in the vibrant, socialist-feminist wing of the Trotskyist movement, I certainly was well-prepared to defend myself politically. In Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, I had learned how to wage class war and win. I had watched three party women become pioneer electricians at Seattle’s public electrical utility, City Light, after a successful class-action sex-discrimination suit. I had worked on the case of Freedom Socialist Party founder Clara Fraser, who fought eight years until she won a political-ideology-discrimination suit, also against Seattle’s electrical utility. And there were others whose cases inspired me, including lecturer Merle Woo, who twice successfully sued the University of California at Berkeley for eliminating her job.

But the news business holds a unique leverage over its employees — economic control over First Amendment litgation. According to current legal precedent and industry practice, a news organization can get away with punishing an employee for exercising certain rights of citizenship off the job. In the name of free speech and a free press, some of the nation’s most powerful employers are trying to subvert the political rights of an entire class of workers — those of us at the front line of gathering and sharing public information. I vowed to change that.

The way I see it, my fight is also about press freedom — and about breaking the media’s apparent franchise on First Amendment rights. There can be no free press if reporters are not free to speak or act without their employer’s permission.

I did not live in the apolitical vacuum my employer carved out for me. I had not succumbed to the cynicism of my profession and my generation. I believed — and still believe — that humans are capable of changing the conditions of our existence. I believe people can live better than we do by reorganizing the way we work and distributing the fruits of our labor. And I believe we can build that world when women, sexual and racial minorities, and queers take our rightful place at the head of all the movements for social change.

I also realized that being outspoken about such views and acting on them made me a target. During the McCarthy era, reporters who stood up to the witch hunters were forced to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Commitee or be fired for “disloyalty” by publishers eager to prove their patriotism. So when I included my work for the Freedom Socialist party newspaper on my first postgraduate resume, I worried it would doom me at daily newspapers. But I finally landed a job at The Daily World in Aberdeen, Washington — because the managing editor reassured the publisher that the Freedom Socialist newspaper was “some kind of Scandinavian thing.”

As a Freedom Socialist reporter, I had learned to get the facts straight and be prepared to defend my analysis and conclusions. As an open radical in the corporate media, I suspected my copy would be scrutinized for bias more carefully than that of my more complaisant colleagues. So I protected myself by being thorough, fair, and balanced. I developed sources representing a broad spectrum of opinions and talents. I double-checked facts and plugged every hole I could see. And over the years, I was rewarded for such efforts with awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and even groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge.

By being scrupulously fair and honest in my work, I felt free to do political activism as I pleased off the job. Whether the issue was police brutality or U.S. intervention in Central America and the Middle East, or gay rights or abortion, the idea that I should sit it out because I worked for a newspaper never entered my mind. I was too busy defending myself and others from the economic war on women, working people, and the poor.

Showdown over Management Prerogatives

In the beginning, when my only backers were the Newspaper Guild and allies who formed the Sandy Nelson Defense Committee, the fight focused on The News Tribune’s high-handed violation of collective bargaining. At the time, the Guild and The News Tribune were negotiating a contract to replace the one abrogated by the 1986 sale. One of the issues on the table was management’s proposed ethics code, which was widely opposed in the newsroom for its sweeping prohibitions against off-duty activities. But my case has always contained the germ of a broader, more general battle between workers and management over who controls our lives off the job. That’s why thousands have joined to support me. It’s also why judges and other arbiters have tossed the case like a hot potato every step of the way.

In a related case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently went to federal court against an employer that deliberately paid employees to keep silent. A pharmaceutical firm, Astra USA, gave employees who complained of sexual harassment a settlement that gagged them from discussing the matter further. The EEOC suit claimed such keep-quiet pacts “violate public policy.” Astra, according to The Wall Street Journal, “said the pacts are valid, claiming that workers can freely waive their rights in exchange for money.” A federal court ruled against Astra in July.

Meanwhile, day in and day out, the entire working press in the United States is effectively paid to keep its head down and its mouth shut on a whole host of political issues. Mostly, to keep their jobs, the journalists comply. I didn’t.

Even though dozens of community members and coworkers tried to persuade The News Tribune managers to reverse my transfer, the newspaper dared not. Newsroom managers were content to make arbitrary and capricious job assignments and take the risk they might later be declared illegal. Rather than worry about the ethics code that they had failed since 1985 to ram down workers’ throats, they put the draft code aside and said that in transferring me they were acting on longstanding traditions understood by everyone in the industry to protect their “editorial integrity” against the danger my activism posed. Then the National Labor Relations Board, after juggling the issue for almost a year, decided definitively in spring 1991 that the National Labor Relations Act offered me no protection from my employer’s actions.

My defense committee began searching for a lawyer willing to represent me pro bono up against a powerful and wealthy newspaper. To get the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington to provide legal representation took six months — during which they grappled with the idea of departing from their historically absolutist support of a free press. Finally in 1993, with the help of ACLU attorneys James Lobsenz and William Bender of Seattle, I filed suit.

The first judge to hear my case, on summary judgment in 1995, took the easy way out. Superior Court Judge Vicki Hogan dismissed my claims under the state constitution to free speech and the right to participate in ballot initiatives. She ruled that the newspaper was immune to state anti-discrimination, free-speech, and ballot-initiative laws because of its First Amendment right to protect its “editorial integrity.”

Now it’s up to the State Supreme Court to decide whether newspapers are above the law. Can any news medium curtail rights of citizenship that even the federal government may not? If you work for the news media, can you be made to wear a muzzle during your free time? Is that what the Constitution in cahoots with capitalism gives the press the freedom and power to do? Did the framers of the Constitution mean to establish a double standard whereby press owners (including McClatchy, Inc., and News Tribune publisher Kelso Gillenwater) were free to be politically active but press workers were not? — to create a world where press lords such as Rupert Murdoch could have a business dinner with Senator Alfonse D’Amato but the rest of us press serfs could not lobby for political causes we care about? I doubt it.

On June 11, News Tribune managers squeezed themselves into a few seats while my supporters filled the rest and stood along the walls and in the hall outside Supreme Court chambers. Attorney Lobsenz asked the court to reverse Hogan’s decision. He reminded the justices that the First Amendment gives publishers the freedom to publish, not to make a profit. Nor does the First Amendment give publishers the freedom to trample every law that stands in the way of their ability to maximize profits. He argued that the First Amendment was a civil liberty, not a commercial construct, and that newspapers are not immune from Title VII, equal-rights laws, and labor laws — nor should they be immune from laws against political discrimination. A ruling is expected later this year. If that ruling goes against me, the next step is the United States Supreme Court.


I look at this fight, which has now engulfed my life, as an enormous opportunity to make real change — not only in journalism but in the world of political events that journalism covers. Press “neutrality” is only a recent development in the United States — mostly a marketing tool. The “standard” of objectivity is only as old as the mass marketing of newspapers, an artifact created to avoid offending advertisers and subscribers and now exploited by newspaper publishers and broadcasters to silence employees who threaten the status quo and to purge the very voices that need to be heard. In fact the history of U.S. journalism began with an overt advocacy press in the colonial struggle for independence from England. Today the corporate press has changed sides. More often than not, it is an advocate for that which must be struggled against.

I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with many other working journalists. Linda Greenhouse, for instance, who covers the Supreme Court for The New York Times, was roundly reprimanded by management for joining 600,000 in the April 1989 abortion-rights march in Washington, D.C. She kept her job, she apparently decided not to do any more such marching, and the example that was made of her sent a chilling signal throughout the Times staff. But Vicky Hendley, education reporter for the Vero Beach Press Journal in Vero Beach, Florida, was fired in July 1989 for publicly endorsing abortion rights and sending coat hangers to 160 Florida lawmakers. And UPI reporter Julie Brienza was fired in 1990 for writing a freelance piece in a gay D.C. newspaper exposing a right-wing radio broadcaster. And Juan Palomo was fired by the now-defunct Houston Post in 1992 for revealing his homosexuality in his column.

When I called Greenhouse to interview her for this article, she told me she does not want to talk on the record about what happened to her in 1986. An incisive writer and legal analyst, she told me she doesn’t think anything good would come of it. Personally, I relish the opportunity to expose management’s many deceits. I enjoy pointing out the ludicrousness of an enormously powerful and wealthy industry pretending to have an impartial perspective on anything. And I am grateful for the growing support I’ve received among journalists and respected journalism educators.

Close to 80 organizations and individuals cosigned a National Lawyers Guild friend-of-the-court brief in my case. Endorsers include more than a dozen unions, including AFSCME International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression. Also signing on were syndicated columnist Norman Solomon and Ben Bagdikian, former assistant managing editor of the Washington Post and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed separately by the Washington State Labor Council and the international executive board of the Newspaper Guild argues that a decision in the The News Tribune‘s favor would encourage other private employers to follow suit and fabricate business reasons to demand that employees stay out of politics. And what would result is the political disarmament and disenfranchisement of working people.

Such a result is intolerable to me and my growing cadre of supporters. As the case wends its way through the courts, I have settled in for a long fight.

To help, contact the Sandy Nelson Defense Committee at 206-756-9971. Donations can be sent to SNDC, PO Box 5847, Tacoma, WA 98415.