The PFSORFAIARFPODWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”
— Mohandas Gandhi
Reportedly, eight to 10 people who worked in The Blade’s ad production department received a trick on Halloween; they were laid off as the newspaper consolidated services with its Pittsburgh sister newspaper. One of them posted at Toledo Talk that she had served there 24 years.
I can’t help but wonder how many of those people would still be employed if The Blade’s parent company, Block Communications, wasn’t spending untold thousands of dollars on a frivolous lawsuit against me.
I guess we all have our priorities.
About three weeks ago, Toledo Free Press LLC Publisher Tom Pounds and I received notice that the Blocks were suing each of us. 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 Blocks claim Tom has used Toledo Free Press content to breach his agreement, using me as an alter ego or puppet 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 have a nickname for this clear attempt to stifle my First Amendment rights: “Operation Bullsh*t.”
First time for everything
I have never personally been sued before, and probably neither have most of you. As part of this experience, which I am told could last from six months to two years, I am going to share the journey and try to bring transparency to this process of bullying through litigation.
On Oct. 4, the Blocks’ legal team sent a 16-page document to all of us named in the suit: “The Plaintiff’s First Set of Requests f or (sic) Admissions, Interrogatories and Requests for Production of Documents.”
Or PFSORFAIARFPOD for short.
Fun fact: So far, the Blocks have generated 116 printed pages for this suit, not counting envelopes and whatever reams of fallen trees they have zipped through internally.
I have zero working knowledge of the legal system (although that is obviously changing by the day), but it seems to me the PFSORFAIARFPOD is an odd document. The Blocks previously filled 13 pages explaining why they were suing us, but the PFSORFAIARFPOD consists of 36 requests for information and questions we are supposed to answer to make the case they failed to make. It certainly would be neighborly and friendly of us to help the Blocks build their case.
But we’re not feeling very friendly these days.
The Blocks go fishin’
To my untrained thinking, the PFSORFAIARFPOD is a Block fishing expedition, an attempt to force us to incriminate ourselves.
The very first question in the PFSORFAIARFPOD asks us to admit to the Blocks’ accusations. The second question in the PFSORFAIARFPOD asks us, if question No. 1 is “anything other than an unqualified admission,” to state all the facts that support the response.
In other words, “Answer this: Have you stopped kicking your dog, Mr. Miller?”
The PFSORFAIARFPOD also asks Tom and I to describe our job duties (That’s easy: Tom oversees all financial and circulation aspects of the newspaper, sells ads, serves on nonprofit boards and generally keeps the business running. He also squeezes free as little page space as possible for me to work with, which is the primary reason our business has survived nearly seven years. I run the editorial side of the newspaper and spend Tom’s money on writers, artists, photographers and other unsavory characters). The PFSORFAIARFPOD also asks Tom and me to identify all of our personal email accounts. I am not looking forward to reading what the folks at the Toledo Talk message board have to say about the messages from my email@example.com account.
The PFSORFAIARFPOD also requests job duty descriptions for all Toledo Free Press employees. Are you starting to share my suspicion that one of the intentions of the Blocks’ lawsuit is to just bury us in pointless paperwork?
Another item of the Operation Bullsh*t PFSORFAIARFPOD asks for all organizational charts for Toledo Free Press. No such charts exist, but if one did, it would have a box at the top labeled “Tom,” with a branch for me, the salespeople, the administration staff and the circulation crew, with another branch from my box that contains writers, artists, photographers, proofreaders and other unpleasant addicts, reprobates and menaces to society.
The PFSORFAIARFPOD requests “all documents (including notes, drafts, emails, etc.) related to the May 22, 2011 article entitled (sic) “Blade Unions Authorize Strike.” That will be easy, as that will consist of two documents: a letter Toledo Blade Newspaper Guild Administrative Officer Lillian Covarrubias wrote to guild members on May 15 (titled “Blade Outsourcing Plan Shames Blocks”) and a handwritten log of unsuccessful attempts to get a comment from Blade President and General Manager Joe Zerbey.
We have also been asked to “produce all documents (including notes, drafts, emails, etc.) related to the cartoon that appeared on Page A4 of the Aug. 21, 2011 Toledo Free Press.” That cartoon (helpfully republished here as an item of newsworthy evidence in a lawsuit), which criticized The Blade for its hammering of Rave Motion Pictures and Hollywood Casino Toledo, has a very thin paper trail. Having thought up the cartoon in the shower, where I do not take notes, I later called cartoonist Don Lee, outlined what I had in mind, received his email draft, suggested a minor change I do not remember then placed the finished cartoon on the page. Lee might have those emails. I do not.
The PFSORFAIARFPOD wants “all documents from … any employees of The Blade.” That’s not very trusting of the Blocks. No Blade employees would send us any documents, would they?
The PFSORFAIARFPOD intrusively seeks several items we are not going to produce without a specific court order, including my personnel file. If The Blade ever does get its weakening grasp on my personnel file, there isn’t going to be a lot to discuss, except a 7-year-old resume, ancient receipts for book purchases and the blueprints to the Seneca County Courthouse.
We are supposed to produce the answers to the 36 requests for information within 30 days, but it may take that long to decipher the document’s language. At one point, the PFSORFAIARFPOD takes nearly 250 words to define the word “document.”
And check out this flowing prose: “All uses of the conjunctive herein include the disjunctive and vice versa. Words in the singular include the plural and vice versa. All uses of the feminine gender include the masculine gender and vice versa. All uses of the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ shall be construed to mean ‘and/or’ where the effect is to broaden the requests. All uses of the word ‘all’ shall include ‘any’ and vice versa. All uses of the word ‘each’ shall include ‘every’ and vice versa. The use of a verb in any tense shall be construed as the use of the verb in all tenses.”
If one of the Blocks’ intentions is to keep us immersed in the details of Operation Bullsh*t, well, mission accomplished. Dealing with this has kept me from doing more important work, like sifting through resumes of laid-off Blade employees who might still have jobs if the Blocks had paid more attention to their own house than ours.
And sadly, this is keeping Tom and me from pursuing our next project: starting a new cable TV supplier.
But this exercise in bullying and attempted prior restraint will give us the opportunity to 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 …
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.