Henry Norr was suspended without pay from Hearst Corporation’s San Francisco Chronicle for participating in an anti-war demonstration last week. Becky O’Malley wrote an excellent article in the Berkeley Daily Planet on April 4, criticizing the Chronicle’s actions for policy reasons. But what the Chronicle did to Norr wasn’t just an ethical lapse or an assault on journalistic freedom. It was illegal as hell.
According to the California Department of Justice, in a circular it disseminates describing the civil rights of employees in California:
“Labor Code section 1101 prohibits an employer from making, adopting or enforcing any rule or policy forbidding or preventing employees from participating in politics. In addition, an employer cannot control or direct the political activities or affiliations of its employees. Labor Code section 1102 prohibits an employer from coercing or influencing the political activities of employees.”
Also, Labor Code section 96(k) provides that the Labor Commissioner can proceed against an employer who is suspended for lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises.
Labor Code 98.6 makes termination or discrimination against an employee who engaged in lawful conduct a legal violation, and the failure of an employer to reinstate an employee who has been determined after a hearing to have been unlawfully discriminated against guilty of a misdemeanor.
Now, Norr was arrested, but he hasn’t been convicted of anything. His arrest, though, is not why he was suspended. Dick Rogers, who is a Chronicle management employee, wrote an article justifying the Norr suspension in which he makes no reference to the fact that Norr was arrested. In his Chronicle apology, Rogers states, “On Wednesday, the paper strengthened its policy to prohibit public political activity related to the war.” Rogers makes clear that the real reason Norr was suspended was his political activism — that he publicly opposed Bush’s war in Iraq.
California law is very clear that whatever political activities an employee engages in on his or her own time, away from the employer’s premises, is none of the employer’s goddamn business. And that’s it.
I’ve read these laws carefully and, to my shock and surprise, have found no exceptions which apply to the Chronicle, or executive editor Phil Bronstein, or the Hearst Corporation.
And, in fact, I believe that somehow the Hearst Corporation has access to legal counsel which could have informed them of California’s laws in this regard. After all, Labor Code sections 1101 and 1102 have been on the books since 1937. So either the Hearst Corporation’s attorneys were incompetent, or the Chronicle deliberately decided to flout the law.
Rogers wants his Chronicle to put a sign over its entrance saying, “Check your activism at the door.” He should add to it, “Abandon civil rights and legal rights all who enter here.”
Paul Glusman is a Berkeley lawyer whose practice emphasizes, among other things, employment law.