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Trial Set Over Reporter Tom Burlington's Firing For Use Of 'N' Word

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A trial is set over a reporter's lawsuit against a Philadelphia television station after he was fired for using the "n" word.

Tom Burlington, who was a reporter and anchor for local Philadelphia station Fox29, alleged that he was a victim of racial discrimination because, he claims, he was fired for using a word that black employees of the station had also used.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, the incident in question arose during a June 2007 staff meeting at the station, where people were discussing reporter Robin Taylor's piece about a symbolic "burial" of the word by a local NAACP branch:

"The dispute began after Taylor, who is white, used the phrase the "n" word during the 2007 staff meeting. She said participants at the burial had said the full word 'at least a hundred times or more,' according to court records.

'Does this mean we can finally say the word n-?' Burlington asked colleagues, according to depositions.

Nicole Wolfe, a producer and one of the three African American employees among the nine people at the meeting, exclaimed: 'I can't believe you just said that!'

Burlington told Taylor that although he did not necessarily expect her to use the word in her story, he thought that doing so gave the story more credence.

Burlington says he used the word only once and approached several attendees after the meeting to explain himself. The Daily News account said he had used the word more than a dozen times."

U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick allowed the suit to go to trial. In a Dec. 23 memo, he said that "there is evidence in this case to suggest that at least two African Americans said the word in the workplace with no consequences." He continued:

"When viewed in its historical context, one can see how people in general, and African Americans in particular, might react differently when a white person uses the word than if an African American uses it. Nevertheless, we are unable to conclude that this is a justifiable reason for permitting the Station to draw race-based distinctions between employees."

But he said it was not clear that Burlington's firing constituted a violation of federal equal opportunity statutes.

The trial is set to begin on Jan. 18. To read the Inquirer's full report on the case, click here.