Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Press Releases: Crossing the line

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When an increasingly conservative newspaper company fires an already publicly conservative employee for apparently offending a liberal interest group, it leaves some people scratching their heads.

Larry Grard, a self-described Christian who told Fox News last week that he was "the lone conservative wolf" in the Morning Sentinel newsroom, was fired November 10 after 18 years at the paper.

Grard, amplified by coverage from Fox News and various Christian-right bloggers, is claiming he was fired for his conservative views opposing same-sex marriage, which in turn are based on his religious beliefs.

His paper and its sisters, the Portland Press Herald and the Kennebec Journal, editorialized in favor of same-sex marriage in November's election, with owner Richard Connor's support. But Connor's viewpoints are generally conservative: He endorsed John McCain in the November 2008 presidential election, and has opposed the public option as an obstacle to progress in the healthcare reform debate.

But Grard's offense was not that he upset the political apple cart. He himself says he was openly conservative in the newsroom for years. And his name is also listed on the Maine Marriage Alliance Web site as part of a group "coming together to amend the Maine Constitution to define marriage as the union of one woman and one man."

Rather, Grard knowingly crossed an ethical line, and is now upset at the consequences.

The morning of November 4, the day after Maine's same-sex marriage law was repealed, Grard arrived at work and found an e-mail message from the DC-based pro-gay Human Rights Campaign, quoting HRC president Joe Solmonese as saying "Although we lost our battle in Maine, we will not allow the lies and hate — the foundation on which our opponents built their campaign — to break our spirits."

Upset, he wrote a reply from his personal e-mail account (though on a company computer): "Who are the hateful, venom-spewing ones? Hint: not the yes on 1 crowd. You hateful people have been spreading nothing but vitriol since this campaign began. Good riddance!" Grard signaled that he knew he was crossing a line, by trying to make his e-mail message anonymous, by not signing his name or identifying his employer. But he either didn't realize or simply forgot that the message would include his name as the sender.

Trevor Thomas, the Human Rights Campaign employee who received the note, Googled Grard's name and then sent the message to Morning Sentinel editor Bill Thompson with a complaint — though not a demand for his firing or any other discipline, according to both Thomas and Kathy Munroe, administrative officer for the Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents Grard and most of the other employees at the company's papers.

Thompson fired Grard for "a serious breach of the legitimate employee and journalistic expectations of Company management," according to a two-page company statement on the matter. (Read the full statement at Munroe, who says Grard had no history of disciplinary problems, says the Guild offered, on Grard's behalf, to accept without objection a lesser disciplinary action for a first offense, such as a reprimand or a suspension without pay, but got nowhere.

The Guild has filed a grievance objecting to the firing on procedural grounds, but distances itself from claims of viewpoint discrimination. "We're not seeing this as pro-gay-marriage or anti-gay-marriage," Munroe says. "This is an internal contractual dispute."

But Connor is caught in a deeply ironic trap. Either Grard stays fired and conservative Connor is labeled anti-conservative, or Grard is reinstated and Connor thereby suggests that Grard was fired for his views — not his poor judgment about when, how, and to whom he expressed them. Whatever the outcome, it won't be a banner day for freedom of speech.

Hat tip to Al Diamon.