Was it something I said?Written by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi was killed Oct. 20, but bullying did not die with him.
As the world learned of the dictator’s death, Toledo Free Press learned it was being sued by Block Communications, parent company of The Blade and other relative antiquities. The 13-page complaint contains many allegations, ranging from microscopic to malignant. And in addition to suing Toledo Free Press LLC and its president and publisher, Tom Pounds, they are suing me personally.
The background for the suit is allegedly a provision in the separation agreement Tom signed when he left The Blade nearly eight years ago, which provided that he would not disparage The Blade or “take any action, directly or indirectly, intended to harm the plaintiff, its parent, division, subsidiaries, or affiliates or any of their directors, officers, shareholders, or employees.”
The plaintiff claims that Tom has used Toledo Free Press content to breach his agreement, using me as an alter ego or proxy to accomplish the dirty deeds. According to the suit, I am an “instrument and agent” of Tom’s and I am personally liable for “damages” under the agreement Tom signed nearly eight years ago.
I call “bullsh*t.”
Let’s call this what it is: an arrogant “Hail Mary” attempt to silence my criticism of The Blade and grossly impair my First Amendment rights, while perpetrating as much damage as possible on my employer and business.
Standards and goals
In my 25-year career in journalism, I have stubbornly and with unwavering consistency adhered to some bedrock principles. Opinion pages and news pages must be clearly marked and neither should masquerade as the other. Editorial and advertising concerns should be kept as far apart as possible. Newspapers should hold evil accountable and assist good. I am not claiming to be batting .1000 at all of these ideals, but that’s the standard and goal.
I have separated from two Toledo publications because of ethical chicanery and publisher interference. The road to ethical lapse begins with compromise, so compromise must be held in contempt. When I first met Tom, one January evening in 2005, our primary discussion about the potential of Toledo Free Press focused on our definitions of community journalism and the risk a startup free newspaper represented. Although I knew Tom had worked at The Blade, neither that publication nor its plaintiff owners factored into our conversation. Eventually, as we shaped the focus and intent of Toledo Free Press, we discussed the potential hazard of directly taking on The Blade. Our mutual determination was that a newspaper that based its content solely in opposition to The Blade’s stances would not be attractive to readers or advertisers and certainly offered no challenge or appeal to me.
At no time during our initial conversation, nor at any time in the subsequent nearly seven years did Tom ever discuss or share with me the details of his separation agreement with the plaintiff. I knew he had a noncompete agreement that forbade him from working at a daily newspaper for a period of time, but I had zero knowledge of any non-disparagement clause until I learned about it a half-decade later in one of the plaintiffs’ annual legal threat missives (at least two of which falsely accused me personally of offenses that were stretches or outright lies). I was not a party to Tom’s agreement with the plaintiffs, so my actions cannot breach it.
One of the primary deals I made with Tom was that he would do what he knows best — sales, circulation, business — and I would do what I know best — producing a strong and ethical publication that serves its community instead of demanding service from it. When we launched Toledo Free Press, we were a small-circulation paper put on racks on Wednesdays. Our current 100,000-plus circulation with home delivery was not even in our dreams, much less the business plan. We were focused on making our mark on Toledo’s weekly print scene and focused on those competitors, not the plaintiff’s daily newspaper.
While Tom and I jointly agree on the general direction and tone of Toledo Free Press coverage, he has never interfered with a news story or editorial in these pages. He is not ignorant of our bigger projects, and I do not keep secrets from him, but we do not jointly plan coverage. Tom has never once assigned a story, edited a story, censored a story, demanded changes in a story or tried to force-feed a story through the system. He reads my column on the layout pages at the same time our deadline copy editors do. And while I warn him before I wade into hazardous waters, I have never sought permission to tackle a topic, nor has he demanded that of me.
Does Tom take any pleasure when I criticize the plaintiffs or stand in front of some of their more outrageous attempts to block a building demolition or falsely malign someone like WSPD’s Brian Wilson? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. Tom has never given me a bonus for sticking my neck out when it comes to the plaintiffs and he has never indicated any direction other than our shared desire to be honest, accurate and take the high road.
What the plaintiffs are suggesting is not only an outrageous attempt at prior restraint on my free speech rights, it is a clear effort to malign my professional reputation.
Toledo Free Press has been named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Best Weekly Newspaper for three consecutive years and has garnered scores of industry awards for its writing and design (including my three consecutive SPJ awards in the Best Media Criticism category, for three deconstructions of the plaintiffs’ work). To suggest any of that has been accomplished while I was being used as a pawn on a chessboard is to malign my abilities and achievements, a few of which clearly agitate the plaintiffs.
I am Tom’s partner, not his puppet, and there is not one person who has worked for Toledo Free Press who could honestly say otherwise. My guess is that is one of the primary sticking points for the plaintiff; while so many community and business leaders have willingly and by choice allowed themselves to be controlled like marionettes, Tom and I have refused to allow Toledo Free Press to be cowed by the plaintiffs’ threats, backroom arrangements and clear disparagement tactics.
The cartoon in question
Anyone who doubts this is the plaintiffs’ attempt to silence my criticism should look at paragraph 31 of their lawsuit.
“On or about August 21, 2011, Pounds … permitted Toledo Free Press to publish a cartoon that depicted a characterization of John R. Block and Allan Block together with The Blade as casting an eclipsing shadow on jobs, tax revenue, investment and development in Toledo, Ohio.”
The plaintiffs’ suit describes the cartoon as disparaging and harmful.
That cartoon, reprinted here so you can see what all the fuss is about, did depict the plaintiffs as eclipsing economic development offered by Rave Cinemas and Hollywood Casino Toledo and was inspired by two “news” stories in the plaintiffs’ publication. An Aug. 5 story, “Multiplex experience takes a toll on moviegoers’ wallets,” pilloried Rave for its popcorn and concession prices, using such unattributed descriptions as “the markup is steep” and “high prices.” The article generally cast Rave in a bad light as a greedy corporate entity bilking its customers.
On Aug. 15, The Blade published a a front-page story headlined, “Future casinos spur addiction concerns,” the latest episode in the ongoing Blade campaign of disparaging casinos since the idea was first proposed for the ballot. The combination of the two stories inspired my idea of the plaintiffs eclipsing economic development with their agenda-driven news coverage. I phoned editorial cartoonist Don Lee and commissioned the cartoon. At no point in the process was Tom involved in the discussion, creation or execution of the cartoon.
The publication of the cartoon fairly criticized The Blade’s own coverage and its owners’ published opinions. As public figures at a public entity, the plaintiffs may be fairly criticized. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit does not deny the accuracy of the cartoon, it just claims that it violates a nearly 8-year-old agreement that was never agreed to by myself or Lee, the cartoon’s creators.
The attempt to silence this criticism should anger anyone who gives a damn about personal free speech and the rights of the press. While The Blade is quick to defend its First Amendment rights, it is telling that it does not extend that defense to others when it is the focus of criticism.
Remember, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Hustler Publisher Larry Flynt’s right to publish a satirical ad that described the Rev. Jerry Falwell engaging in drunken sexual congress with his mother in an outhouse. It’s unlikely I would commission a similar satire of the plaintiffs, but the cartoon on this page, which mirrors the plaintiffs’ published work, does not approach even the most thinly stretched definition of harm as they claim.
As Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion of the Flynt case, “At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern.
“The sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office or those public figures who are intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large.”
The cost of the fight
Toledo Free Press is a small company. A protracted legal fight endangers its future. But we will fight. The larger issue of free speech is more important than our business or financial concerns.
The one small comfort is that we may finally be able to publicly share the stories of true disparagement the plaintiffs have perpetrated by their acts and the acts of the people they control.
And what stories they are …
Email Editor in Chief Michael S. Miller at email@example.com.