(CN) - Firing the Philadelphia Inquirer's two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editor undermined the newspaper's commitment to "independent and free" journalism and violated the publishing company's rules, two of its directors claim in court.
New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz's limited partnership, Intertrust GCN LP, and philanthropist H.F. Lenfest sued the paper's publisher, Interstate General Media - which also owns the Daily News and Philly.com - and CEO/Publisher Robert Hall in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.
Hall last week gave the pink slip to nonparty William Marimow, an editor who won his second Pulitzer with the 2012 article, "Policy Shift by D.A. Stirs Controversy."
The plaintiffs claim Hall did not have permission to do that: that the firing "was made without the approval or authority of IGM's Management Committee, a mandatory requirement of IGM's governing Limited Liability Company Agreement ... Hall lacked the authority to fire the editor of the newspaper, a major business decision that should not have been-and could not be-taken without the unanimous approval of the Management Committee (approval that was not secured here). Hall's unauthorized action had and promises to have a major injurious impact on IGM's day-to-day business and operations."
Dan Lee, a spokesman for Interstate General Media, lashed out at Katz in a statement. Lee said he spoke for four of the six company directors, who together control 58 percent of the company.
Lee said in the statement: "Unfortunately, one of the minority shareholders of Interstate General Media, Lewis Katz, has a well-documented history of attempting to interfere in the editorial and journalistic operations of the newspapers, something each of the owners publicly and in writing pledged not to do. This lawsuit is the latest example.
"Decisions to remove or transfer editorial and journalistic staff are the sole purview o the publisher, Bob Hall, under the terms of the Interstate General Media governance agreement."
In their 9-page lawsuit, Katz and Lenfest say they are acting on the conviction that "Philadelphia's journalism must be independent and free from interference by anyone."
Marimow, who had been the Inquirer's top editor from 2006 to 2010, was rehired to "bolster the newspaper staff's confidence after it had been drastically shaken by cost-cutting measures, a bankruptcy filing in 2009, and constant changes in management," the complaint states.
Hall responded with "scathingly critical" comments to Marimow, including a warning that he would be keeping "watch over" him, according to the complaint.
Marimow took the job anyway, though it meant turning down a prestigious position at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The "unauthorized, unforeseen, and ill-advised firing" of Marimow led to a "firestorm of adverse reactions," including talk of a walkout, anxiety about another round of sackings, and adverse media coverage, according to the complaint.
A petition in his support is just more than 60 signatures shy of its 500-person goal.
Taking oblique blows at Marimow's fitness for the position, Interstate General Media's statement alludes to other media coverage of his "shortcomings." Philadelphia Magazine, reporting from the publisher's internal documents, framed the issue as Marimow resisting the editorial and staffing changes that Hall sought, or ordered.
The directors seek an injunction reinstating Marimow.
They are represented by Richard Sprague with Sprague & Sprague.