Editor's note: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated Bell was fired after the Pittsburgh Black Media Foundation met with station officials. The firing occurred before the meeting.
PITTSBURGH - The lawsuit of a Pittsburgh news anchor fired over a Facebook post perceived as racist by some is an example of why employers need concrete social media policies in place, a Connecticut attorney says.
Former Pittsburgh news anchor Wendy Bell was fired after a post on her personal Facebook page referencing the murder of six people in a backyard shooting in Wilkinsburg. A federal wrongful termination lawsuit followed.
Robert C. Hinton, attorney with Pullman & Comley, said employers should have clear guidelines governing the proper use of social media, especially when employees are encouraged to engage a target audience or customer base on behalf of the company, like Bell.
Hinton said Bell likely has a strong case against her employer.
“I cannot predict the outcome with any certainty, but I think she has a strong enough case to survive both a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment,” Hinton told the Pennsylvania Record.
“In other words, I think the case will be tried to a jury, and that obviously leaves open the possibility for victory for the plaintiff.”
Part of what Bell wrote in a lengthy post after the shooting that upset people was “you needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts … They are young black men, likely in their teens or in their early 20s. They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested.”
The Facebook post went viral, drawing intense criticism from many people who claimed it to be racially offensive and even reckless. The Pittsburgh Black Media Federation declared Bell’s post to be irresponsible.
“The irresponsible statements demonstrate a persistent problem with how African-Americans are negatively stereotyped by too many journalists and news organizations," it said.
A few supporters claimed her post to be heartfelt. After the backlash, Bell apologized, stating that some of the words she chose were “insensitive and could be viewed as racist.”
“I regret offending anyone. I’m truly sorry,” she said in her apology.
The TV station where Bell was an anchor, WTAE-TV, fired her before station officials met with members of the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation. The station declared Bell’s post as “inconsistent with the company’s ethics and journalistic standards.”
But Bell’s dismissal prompted her to fire back. She filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania against the station, claiming she was a victim of racial discrimination because she is white.
She alleged in her lawsuit that if she had written identical comments about white criminal suspects or if she had been a minority, she would not have been fired. Bell also said the station encouraged her to use social media to communicate with members of the audience and fans, which is what she did in this situation.
Hinton said employees do have ground on which to stand against employers in social media cases such as this.
“As per the court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss, these type of discrimination claims are actionable under Section 1981 if you prove the four substantive elements of that claim,” Hinton said.
In deciding whether discrimination constitutes race discrimination under Section 1981, courts have looked at several factors, including:
·Whether the discriminator perceived or characterized the victim as belonging to a separate race because of his or her ethnicity;
-Whether the victim belongs to an ethnicity that is perceived as "nonwhite";
-Whether the victim belongs to an ethnicity that has traditionally been subject to discrimination; and
-Whether the victim is claiming discrimination based on characteristics commonly associated with national origin (such as country of birth, language fluency, or surname), which is not a violation of Section 1981; or on characteristics commonly associated with race (physical characteristics or skin color, for example), which is a violation of Section 1981.
Hinton said he believes this particular case will be ruled in favor of the plaintiff.
“I think the case will likely settle on terms favorable to Wendy Bell. I doubt that Hearst Stations will want this matter to proceed to trial,” he said.