WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Tuesday sided with the publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press in a long-running labor dispute between the newspaper and reporters who were fired after they complained about its editorial practices.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the newspaper's publisher was protected by the First Amendment when it dismissed eight reporters and disciplined others who claimed the owner was interfering with news coverage.
The reporters claimed they were illegally fired for union activity and legitimate complaints about their terms of employment. But the court found the dispute was all about editorial control.
"The First Amendment affords a publisher – not a reporter – absolute authority to shape a newspaper's content," Judge Stephen Williams wrote for a three-judge panel.
The newspaper's attorney, Michael Zinser, issued a statement saying the decision "validated what we believed to be appropriate action all along." He also criticized the National Labor Relations Board, which earlier ruled the workers were wrongfully terminated for union activity and other reasons.
"Any business owner in America should be concerned when a government agency attempts to regulate your business; it is all the more egregious when your business is based on a right so important that the Founding Fathers made it the first, specific enumerated Amendment of the Constitution," he said.
The ruling stems from a dispute between Ampersand Publishing LLC and employees that began in 2006. Nearly every top editor at the paper quit in protest over what they said was owner Wendy McCaw's meddling in news coverage.
Newsroom employees later voted to form a union, and they have been fighting with the newspaper since then over bargaining rights.
Eight reporters were ultimately fired, six of whom hung a sign from a freeway pedestrian bridge in 2006 that read, "Cancel Your Newspaper Today!"
Employees also held a series of rallies and demonstrations outside the newspaper's headquarters, demanding the News-Press restore "the wall between opinion and news."
Tuesday's decision is consistent with a 2010 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that forcing Ampersand to rehire the employees is a violation of the publisher's First Amendment rights.
In a separate case, the NLRB issued a broad cease-and-desist order against Ampersand in October and ordered it to bargain in good faith with the union representing its current employees.