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Federal Lawsuit Alleges Post-Gazette Violated Civil Rights Laws In Treatment Of Black Reporter

Shantale Davis
Post-Gazette reporter Alexis Johnson.

An attorney for one of the black journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who the paper barred from covering police brutality protests after claiming she was biased, filed a federal civil lawsuit against the paper Tuesday morning.
According to attorney Sam Cordes, who is representing reporter Alexis Johnson, the newspaper’s actions violated the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964 for retaliating against someone who opposes or protests race discrimination.

“[The reporter] was told that because she was engaged in expressing opinions, and those opinions were opposing race discrimination, that she was not going to be allowed to cover stories about both protests and race discrimination in general,” said Cordes.

Last month, Johnson tweeted photos from a Kenny Chesney concert in Pittsburgh satirically, comparing them to looting in Pittsburgh following several peaceful protests in honor of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May sparked national outrage.

After her tweet went viral, Johnson was told by management that she violated the company’s social media policy, that her tweet displayed bias, and that her opinions on the issue were the reason she would be precluded from covering future protests. According to the newspaper union, there is no official social media policy.

“On the day [Johnson] was called in, which I believe was June 1st, she pitched three stories,” Cordes said. “She was told, you can’t write these stories because you expressed an opinion about African Americans being murdered by police officers. And that is a violation of the law.”

According to the lawsuit, "[The Post-Gazette's] actions in precluding and removing Johnson from coverage of race-based protests and demonstrations in retaliation for opposing race discrimination deprived Johnson of the same right to make and enforce contracts as is enjoyed by white citizens in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. §1981."

Cordes also noted that while Johnson was told she wasn’t able to express an opinion about protests against police brutality, management did not bar reporters from expressing their opinions on Twitter following the Tree of Life shooting in 2018.

“There were lots of Post-Gazette reporters tweeting ... about that issue and none of them were taken off of coverage,” Cordes said. “There’s differential treatment of similarly situated people.”

The Post-Gazette did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Last week, Keith Burris, the executive editor of the Post-Gazette, responded publicly to criticism that the paper had racially discriminated against Johnson, saying that the decision was made for “purely journalistic reasons” and that it “cannot fairly be called racism.”

“No newspaper in America, whether considered over the past 100 years or 100 days or 100 hours, has devoted more time, words or space to questions of discrimination, race prejudice, or justice than the Post-Gazette,” Burris wrote.

Another journalist of color, Michael Santiago, was also pulled from photo coverage of the protests after he tweeted his support for Johnson. On Sunday, he announced he was taking a buyout and leaving the paper.

“I can’t work for someone who doesn’t love me,” Santiago said. “I hate to be departing under these circumstances but it is necessary.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story didn't mention the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which Johnson's attorney also believes was violated.