As promised, New Haven attorney Joseph Garrison has filed my wrongful termination lawsuit against The Courant, accusing the country’s oldest continuously published newspaper of violating its written News Mission, or what I call its ethics policy, when it fired me last month for refusing to “be nice” to major advertisers.
The suit was filed in Hartford Superior Court under the Connecticut free speech statute that protects workers from retribution for exercising their First Amendment rights in the workplace. It is the strongest free speech statute in the country.
This is the first time that the statute has been used to challenge a media companyâ€™s attempt to protect its advertisers from adverse publicity.
“This lawsuit is not only important to my client, it is vital to the people of Connecticut,” attorney Garrison said in a prepared statement.
The free speech statute, Garrison said, “is the very essence of being an American, having the right to speak out in the workplace, especially on issues vital to the public.”
“While the statute has been used by other workers who were punished for speaking out in the workplace, this is the first time a journalist has used it in Connecticut to contest his firing for acting on behalf of the public to protect the consumer, and at the same time keeping his own newspaper trustworthy,” Garrison said.
The suit was filed as the result of my being fired effective Aug. 14 after a series of incidents in which the new Courant management attempted to pressure me from writing negative columns about key advertisers. As The Courant’s first investigative consumer columnist, my job was to expose wrongdoing by companies and governmental entities. I was appointed the Watchdog columnist three years ago after serving as the paper’s business editor for 12 years. I had been with The Courant for a total of 40 years.
My last Watchdog column, which disclosed that the Connecticut Attorney General was investigating Sleepy’s based on complaints his office received that it had sold used mattresses as new, was not published as scheduled on Aug. 2. I was told on Aug. 3 that my position would be eliminated.
I launched my website – CtWatchdog.com – and on Aug. 14 published my column on Sleepy’s, a key Courant advertiser and the largest mattress retailer in the country. The firm has denied selling used mattresses as new – including the one a customer complained was filled with bedbugs – and has threatened to sue me for libel.
My suit – which seeks both compensatory and punitive damages from The Courant and its parent Tribune Co., notes that The Courant adopted its “News Mission,” which is still operational and is listed on its website. The mission statement says, in part, that The Courant will cover news “with respect for all and favor to none.”
Despite that mission statement, Jeffrey Levine, the editor of content for both The Courant and Fox 61 TV, ordered me to alert him to any columns I wrote that might negatively reflect on a key advertiser. I was also given a list of the key advertisers – which includes the state of Connecticut. Levine said that any column that falls into that category would be scrutinized by him. At one point he told me that it would be my fault if the newspaper had to lay off reporters because of columns that angered an advertiser enough to cancel ads. Other journalists at The Courant were given similar orders this past fall – orders that no previous editor or publisher had ever given.
The suit also accuses the Courant of giving numerous and false reasons for my departure.
- Courant Insists It Has Legal Right To Tell Columnists/Reporters To Go Light On Advertisers And Coaches
- Courant And Tribune Seek To Have Watchdog’s Wrongful Termination Suit Dismissed
- Watchdog’s Attorney Amends Wrongful Discharge Suit Against Courant, Tribune To Include Violation of Mission Statement
- Courant Claims Watchdog Court Victory Would Hurt Newspapers
- CtWatchdog’s Attorney Responds to Courant/Tribune’s Attempt To Have Wrongful Discharge Suit Dismissed
- Conn Law Tribune Interviews Watchdog