A newspaper silencing their own reporter: what about free speech?

First Amendment, Professional Ethics, Social Media

By: Lisa Hoover

Felicia Sonmez’s original tweet: Kobe Bryant’s distrubing rape case: The DNA evidence, the accusser’s story and the half-confession.

I was fascinated to wake up to the headline “Washington Post reporter who tweeted about Kobe Bryant rape allegations placed on administrative leave” recently. My first thought was “What? I must have read that wrong.” But I didn’t – The Washington Post reported itself that it had suspended political reporter Felicia Sonmez after she “sparked a furious backlash” by posting about the rape allegations from 2003 against Kobe Bryant shortly after his death in a helicopter crash. They have since reinstated her, but I am concerned that it happened at all. 

Sonmez stated that “her intent was to fill in an important piece of information in the early accounts of Bryant’s life and career to counter tweets that had popped up dismissing the allegations against Bryant as insignificant, according to the Post. She was apparently directed to delete any tweets related to her post, which she did. She also stated that she has been warned previously by management regarding statements on social media about her own sexual assault, which have left her “deeply frustrated.” 

The Post states that “news organizations have repeatedly disciplined employees for social-media postings that run afoul of general newsroom guidelines and violate journalists’ obligation of neutrality. But the rules don’t cover every circumstance and are sometimes irregularly enforced.” The Post has also stated that the tweets “displayed poor judgement that undermined the work of her colleagues,” according to CNN, and that the organization was reviewing whether her tweets violated the newsroom’s social media policy (they have since found that her tweets did not violate policy). Perhaps not surprisingly, CNN reports that other journalists have objected to the suspension. 

The Washington Post logo.

The Post newsroom’s union The Newspaper Guild protested, saying “we write to share our alarm and dismay that our newsroom leaders have chosen to place Felicia Sonmez on leave over a social media post” and “but we believe it is our responsibility as a news organization to tell the public the whole truth as we know it — about figures and institutions both popular and unpopular, at moments timely and untimely.” 

The guild also stated that “we are concerned by The Post’s unwillingness to be transparent about this issue, and alarmed by the implication that reporters will be penalized for talking about any topic not on their beat,” according to CNN.

I find this whole incident rather baffling. In an opinion piece for The Washington Post Erik Wemple cites the Post’s social media policy, which doesn’t seem to apply to what Sonmez did, other than if we accept that her tweets somehow damaged the reputation of the Post. The tweets linked another news story that seems to be based in fact about a well known incident in Bryant’s life. The primary potential objection to her tweets is likely the timing; it can argued that it was crass to post about it immediately following his death. I won’t touch that argument with a 10-foot-pole. 

But I do think that regardless of whether it was in good taste or not, there’s something odd and inappropriate about a news organization – one of the primary beneficiaries of the right to free speech – silencing (much less punishing) an employee for their speech, even if only temporarily.  

It appears that the post was made on her personal account, not the Washington Post’s twitter. I am also intrigued by the Post’s apparent argument that she was posting about something outside her coverage area. It seems that would undermine any argument they have that she impacted their reputation negatively; readers familiar with her would presumably be less inclined to think she was speaking for the Post if it was an area she doesn’t cover. 

Ultimately The Post is a private entity; the 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to them. However, I find it disconcerting that a press organization whose values – not to mention profits – center around free speech would censor an employee because readers don’t like what she said. This seems particularly troubling given their tagline: “Democracy dies in darkness.” And I think this sets a concerning precedent. 

As librarians, I think we should be concerned. We are proponents of free speech, and freedom of the press, and under the Library Bill of Rights we support multiple viewpoints. We support freedom of the press and the importance of an informed citizenry. For many of us, helping people be informed is a major part of what we do and why we do it. When the media itself is censoring a reporter for sharing information – even at a potentially insensitive time – can we as a society have these things?  


Lisa Hoover

Lisa Hoover is a Public Services Librarian at Clarkson University and an Adjunct Professor in criminal justice at SUNY Canton. In addition to her MLS, Lisa holds a JD and an MA in political science. She began her career as an editor and then manager for a local news organization, adjunct teaching in her “spare time.” She teaches courses in criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional law. She is passionate about 1st Amendment issues. She recently began her career as a librarian, starting at Clarkson University in June 2017 teaching information literacy sessions and offering reference services. Lisa and her husband Lee live in Norwood, New York with their cats Hercules, Pandora and Nyx and pug-mix Alexstrasza (Alex). Find her on Twitter @LisaHoover01.

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