THE BLOG
07/14/2015 11:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mississippi Newspaper Silences Staff on Gay Marriage Issue

2015-07-13-1436819708-5481973-sGAYMARRIAGEsmall.jpg

A Mississippi newspaper banning gay wedding announcements told employees to keep their opinions to themselves.

The company warned employees against mentioning the Supreme Court gay marriage ruling on social media.

Clay Foster, publisher of Mississippi's third-largest newspaper, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, held a meeting with the company's top leaders two days before his column appeared in print to condemn the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to legalize gay marriage. He informed the group at the meeting of a policy to not accept wedding announcements of same-sex couples.

He also said any employee could leave who didn't like his column or the company's policies related to stifling speech at the news organization and discriminating against same-sex couples.

Foster, publisher and CEO of Journal Inc., also sent an internal email to the company's other publications. It owns the Mississippi Business Journal, eight weekly publications in Northeast Mississippi and five weeklies in the suburban Memphis area.

"We'll be discussing it more in the coming days, but what we don't need is one of our papers taking an editorial position on the issue independent of any company position on the matter," Foster's June 30 email stated. "I doubt that any would, but it's safer not to assume."

Foster's column explained his justification to discriminate against gays and lesbians by not publishing same-sex wedding announcements.

"On those occasions when government leaders make decisions that are contrary to God's Word and expect us to do things contrary to God's will, we must obey and honor God instead as Peter and the apostles did in Acts 5:29," Foster wrote.

Charlotte Wolfe, the company's associate publisher for community newspapers, sent an internal email to the leadership at the weekly publications two days before Foster's column published.

"... Journal, Inc. has made a policy decision to not accept wedding/engagement notices from samesex couples," Wolfe wrote. "Please communicate to anyone else on your staff who would be taking this information from walkin customers."

The associate publisher went on to describe expectations of employees at the news company to keep their mouths and social media accounts quiet related to gay marriage.

"A decision has been made that the Journal's editorial board will not take a position on the recent Supreme Court decision... Because the company is not taking an editorial position on this, we need to follow suit, and not take positions editorially or in personal columns.

"This has been communicated to all SMT members and I wanted to be sure to share this with each of you. In addition, we need to remember that we and our employees all are representatives of Journal, Inc. 24/7. Our job is to report the news objectively and we can't do this if we're also on social media sharing our opinions. We have a right to our opinions, but because we are so tightly connected to our newspaper products, we don't need to vocalize this on social media ... whether we realize it or not, people see that as the paper's opinion."

Neither Foster nor Daily Journal editor Rod Guajardo responded to requests for comment.

However, leaders at other Mississippi newspapers say their news organization will publish same-sex wedding announcements banned by the Tupelo-based newspaper. Sam Hall, executive editor of The Clarion Ledger told me last week that the news organization will publish gay wedding announcements. Jim Gaines, editor of the Starkville Daily News, wrote an editorial in Monday's edition explicitly stating the newspaper's policy on wedding announcements of gay couples.

"We'll publish them as we will publish any other wedding announcement," Gaines said.

Birney Imes, editor and publisher of The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus, Miss., said the he and others at the paper decided long before the Supreme Court ruling to accept marriage announcements of all couples.

"We never considered not publishing them, so the idea of writing something saying we will seems odd," Imes wrote in an email. "Maybe we should do that."

Disclosure: I was employed twice at the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, leaving both times under favorable circumstances. When I left in October 2014, the then-editor said he would rehire me. I continue to value personal and professional relationships with people employed at the organization.