When journalist Alexis Johnson sued her former employer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette underestimated defending its actions in court. But Johnson has made it through at least one preliminary hurdle on her road to recovery.
A federal judge denied a motion to dismiss filed by PG Publishing, according to Law360. PG Publishing, the operator of the Post-Gazette, has tried to argue that a decision to prohibit Johnson from covering racial justice protests last summer was purely an “editorial” decision.
Law 360 reported that in denying the motion to dismiss, U.S. District Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan found the publisher did not maintain an absolute discretion vis-a-vis the First Amendment in “any and all discriminatory personnel decisions.”
“Ms. Johnson alleges that PG Publishing re-assigned her to cover less important and publicized news stories because of her race and protected activity,” wrote Ranjan.” “PG Publishing disputes this, arguing that Ms. Johnson remained assigned to the same ‘beat’ and was simply precluded from covering a few specific stories she had requested. The clarification or resolution of this factual dispute is necessary before the court can rule on PG Publishing’s First Amendment defense.”
Johnson is one of two Black journalists who alleged management pulled them from coverage of protests turned uprisings that occurred in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s killings. The Post-Gazette claimed Johnson showed “bias” in a tweet poking fun at the disparity in response to white attendees after a concert compared to racial justice protestors.
Once Johnson’s story came to light, the backlash was swift from all corners of the internet. But instead of responding and adjusting in kind, the Post-Gazette doubled down. Upset at the lawsuit, the Post-Gazette the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations claiming the entity was prohibited from hearing Johnson’s claims.
As previously covered by NewsOne, the Post-Gazette’s former executive editor responded very poorly to the backlash. Misusing editorial privilege in a version of “I have a Black friend,” Keith C. Burris claimed, “no newspaper in America, whether considered over the past 100 years or 100 days or 100 hours, has devoted more time, words or space to questions of discrimination, race prejudice, or justice than the Post-Gazette.”
Burris, a controversial figure long before Johnson’s case, previously tried to pass off an unsigned editorial that claimed racism was the “new McCarthyism.”
Johnson moved on to working for Vice News in October. Her reprimand and the very public meltdown of Burris continues as a lesson of the internal issues within newsrooms that impact meaningful coverage of issues impacting Black communities.