(CN) - The publisher of the Santa Barbara-based News-Press does not have to hire back editors and reporters who were fired for unionizing when they disagreed with the paper's "journalist integrity," the 9th Circuit ruled. Mandating rehiring would violate the publisher's First Amendment "right to exercise editorial control," the three-judge panel explained.
James McDermott, regional director for the National Labor Relations Board, appealed the lower court's refusal to force Wendy McCaw, owner and publisher of News-Press, to rehire nearly 20 percent of her newsroom.
The employees were fired for participating in union activities meant to protest the paper's integrity.
The dispute began in 2004, when McCaw "voiced concerns that the paper's news reporting was sometimes biased," the ruling states. Several editors and reporters resigned because of what they perceived as "unethical interference in the news-reporting function of the newspaper."
Those who stayed sought union support. They held rallies, struck union deals and used economic coercion to gain support from the general public. Specifically, they handed out cancellation cards that subscribers could sign stating that they wanted their subscription canceled if the union's terms were not met.
An administrative law judge found that the New-Press "had committed numerous unfair labor practices" and recommended that anyone fired for unionizing be reinstated.
The judge concluded that the First Amendment's freedom of press, though it protects publishers and not their employees, doesn't limit government-mandated collective bargaining aimed at "restoring editorial integrity."
But the district court rejected the idea that rehiring the employees would not affect McCaw's right to control her own publication, and the Pasadena-based federal appeals court agreed.
Writing for the panel, Judge Richard Clifton wrote that forcing McCaw to rehire her employees "would present at least some risk of compromising the New-Press's First Amendment right to exercise editorial control."
Judge Michael Daly Hawkins dissented, arguing that the injunction fought only for the reinstatement of employees who were within their rights to protest the conditions of their employment.
"The New-Press sees this case as one in which it may have to withstand economic pressure from its employees who are unhappy with the paper's management," Hawkins wrote. "Exerting such pressure is the very essence of union activity."