Reporter Wins First Round In Discrimination Case Against 'Pittsburgh Post Gazette'

A federal judge has ruled that a discrimination lawsuit filed by an African-American reporter against PG Publishing Company, publisher of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can go forward. 

Alexis D. Johnson, who now works at Vice, claims the Post Gazette discriminated against her by not allowing her to cover Black Lives Matter protests.  

Reporters are usually expected to recuse themselves from stories in which they have a potential conflict of interest. What the court must determine is the line between that need and alleged racial discrimination. 

The back story is that Johnson tweeted photos of property damage following the killing of George Floyd and the eruption of Black Lives Matter protests, saying: “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!...oh wait sorry. No these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney concert tailgate. Whoops.”  



Johnson was subsequently told by her bosses that she could not cover the ongoing protests because her tweet had offered an opinion about them.  

In its motion to dismiss the case, PG Publishing contends that Johnson’s complaint had failed to show any adverse action or denial of contractual rights that would support her retaliation and discrimination claims. 

But U.S. Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan ruled that Johnson has “pled sufficient facts to establish these legal requirements at this early stage.” 

In addition, Ranjan rejected PG’s claim that it could not be held liable under the First Amendment on the ground that Johnson’s lawsuit intrudes on his discretion to choose what it will publish. 

Ranjan writes the facts must be determined before the court can decide this issue, as well as Johnson's claim that she was reassigned to cover less important stories because of her race and protected activity. 

However, almost as an aside, Ranjan states: “While the First Amendment provides a publisher absolute discretion to refrain from publishing content … this discretion does not extend to allow a publisher to make any and all discriminatory personnel decisions.” 

The judge also notes that at this early stage, the plaintiff in a case must be given every benefit of the doubt.  

The case is on file with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

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