Note: After Yahoo! News last week posted our original Norr story ("When Speech Isn't Free," 4/2/03), the Bay Guardian received a barrage of e-mail from across the country. Read a sampling of the feedback at www.sfbg.com/wartime/emails.html.

'Chron' fires Norr
Bronstein punctuates his ban on antiwar activities with a decision that seems legally solid but ethically questionable

By Steven T. Jones

San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein last week fired technology writer Henry Norr for his antiwar activities, ending a closely watched saga that raises interesting legal, journalistic, and political issues.

The story began on the first day of the war against Iraq, March 20, when Norr called in sick to protest and was arrested on Market Street for civil disobedience, along with 2,300 others in the war's opening days. Norr had been honest with his direct supervisors about why he was missing work but was still suspended by Bronstein five days later (see "When Speech Isn't Free," 4/2/03).

Chronicle conflict-of-interest policies specifically allowed reporters to protest, although they did advise employees to consult supervisors if there were questions about whether the paper's credibility might be affected. Norr doesn't believe his antiwar views compromise his ability to fairly cover technology issues.

Bronstein later changed the Chron's policy to a "strict prohibition against any newsroom staffer participating in any public political activity related to the war," a unilateral change challenged by the employees' union, the Northern California Media Workers Guild (see "Bronstein's War," 4/16/03; Chron documents available at www.sfbg.com/37/29/news_norr.html).

Norr continued his antiwar activities, including helping shut down the Port of Oakland April 7 and getting arrested at Lockheed Martin April 22. Union grievances over the policy change and Norr's suspension are still unresolved, but Bronstein went ahead and fired Norr April 21, citing both improper use of a sick day and antiwar activism.

"Even if you had not claimed a paid workday, we would not permit you to return to work in The Chronicle newsroom. To do so would irreparably compromise our journalistic standards and the expectations we have for everyone in the newsroom," Bronstein wrote in his termination letter to Norr.

To Norr, this is about violating his free speech rights and even what he considers his obligations as a citizen to actively oppose the unjust actions of his government. He is appealing his firing to the California State Labor Commission, citing a section in the California Labor Code that prohibits companies from interfering with the political activities of their employees.

Yet lawyers with both the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Employment Law Center don't believe he has a strong case. Ironically, newspapers enjoy First Amendment protections that allow them to curtail the First Amendment rights of their reporters in the interests of press freedom and journalistic integrity.

"The only thing the Labor Commission could do is order back pay, not reinstatement," said the ELC's Bill McNeill.

Norr acknowledges he may have run afoul of Bronstein's revised policy, even though the change happened while he was on suspension and the policy violated the union's collective bargaining rights. "I'm very confident that I will win the grievance on the suspension, but I'm less confident that I'll win on the termination."

Yet it is the broader journalistic and political issues that have piqued such interest in Norr's story. Media Alliance executive director Jeff Perlstein said singling out antiwar protest for punishment "sends a very troubling message to this community.

"It is another example of the chilling effect on free speech when people who work in the media are forced to divorce themselves from their private lives."

Stanford University communications professor John McManus agrees: "I find the reach of the new Chronicle policy very troubling." His Grade the News project (www.gradethenews.org) assessed the war coverage of Bay Area media outlets, and it rapped the Chronicle for belittling and dismissive reporting of the antiwar movement, giving the San Jose Mercury News, for example, far higher marks in that area.

While McManus is not willing to say the Chron's frustrations with protesters dictated its policy change or Norr's firing, he thinks these actions create perception and credibility problems for the paper, concerns that are the Chron's stated reasons for banning employee participation in war-related protests.

"The tone of the coverage in the Chronicle was pretty hostile to the protesters, and that suggests that Norr's firing is an extension of that hostility," he said.

Bronstein once again did not return our calls on this issue, or reportedly those of other journalists and McManus, even through the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states, "Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other."

E-mail Steven T. Jones


April 30, 2003