The Man Caught in the Middle

At the center of the controversy over the ban on public political speech is Henry Norr, until April 21, the Chronicle's personal technology columnist. Norr was fired for allegedly falsifying his timecard, taking a sick day to attend an anti-war rally in March. But his termination seems clearly linked to the changed newsroom policy on political participation.

 

 

 

Terminated Chronicle Writer Henry Norr Responds

 

 

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I agree with John McManus' critique of current efforts by my former employer, the San Francisco Chronicle, to prohibit all employees, regardless of their department or beat, from engaging in any political expression related to the war.

To extend John's "thought experiment," suppose the Chronicle had adopted a different approach to avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest, relying on disclosure instead of prohibition. Imagine that employees with an opinion on the war were required to add a disclaimer at the end of their stories stating their opinion on the war. Does anyone seriously believe that such a disclaimer would give readers more confidence in the fairness, accuracy, or "objectivity" of movie reviews, sports reports, or (in my case) columns on things like spam and new notebook computers?

I'd add one other argument against the Chronicle's new policy: It's illegal. Section 1101 of the State Labor Code states: "No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy:
   (a) Forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or from becoming candidates for public office.
   (b) Controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees."

Section 1102. goes on to prohibit the kind of retaliation Chronicle management used against me: "No employer shall coerce or influence or attempt to coerce or influence his employees through or by means of threat of discharge or loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity."

Notice that there are no ifs, ands or buts in this section of the code. When the California legislature adopted this law, it could have exempted newspapers. It didn't. It could have added "except in cases of business necessity" or "except when necessary to preserve the appearance of neutrality" or some such, but again it did none of that.

Employers who violate this law, by the way, are subject not only to fines, but also to imprisonment for up to a year in the county jail.

 

The Chronicle has declined comment on Mr. Norr's termination, citing a policy of not discussing personnel matters in public. The Northern California Media Workers Guild is contesting the dismissal.