Connecticut law could be on his side
It's not exactly up there with "Free Mumia," but the virtual world of Weblogs has been ablaze with anger at the Hartford Courant for killing travel editor Denis Horgan's personal Weblog. The folks on Poynter's Online News e-mail discussion list have been almost obsessed with the topic, and that list has spawned dueling editorals at Cyberjournalist.net (with OJR's own J.D. Lasica offering a spirited defense of Horgan).
But while the hyperbole has swirled, few people are paying attention to Horgan himself. His last official Weblog post stated that he was exploring his "rights and options," and quite a few people have intimated that he should sue the newspaper for restricting his free speech outside of work. So what gives? A Connecticut state law, ?31-51q, prevents an employer from disciplining an employee for exercising First Amendment rights. In this case, Horgan was basically told to stop Weblog commentary or he would lose his job as travel editor.
Now, the longtime columnist is talking to a lawyer about legal action, and hopes that the threat of a lawsuit will get the paper to back off and allow him to blog again. "I think I'm going to win this," he told me. "Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail, and the law will prevail. I have no demands. I want no apologies. I just want to be left alone, so I can come into my family room and type away at my keyboard every night."
Thought police or conflict watchers?
The Courant's reader representative, Karen Hunter, sent me portions of the employee handbook that deal with outside writing and jobs. One passage states, "You may hold outside jobs, paid or voluntary, as long as they do not interfere with your responsibilities to the Courant, and as long as there is no perceived or real conflict of interest with your work at the Courant... You should not participate in any political or civic activity that could result in a perceived conflict of interest or jeopardize independence or objectivity."
Horgan sees no relevance to his case in this passage, but the Courant editor behind the blog's shutdown, Brian Toolan, sees such a conflict in Horgan's blog. He told the Hartford Advocate that "the idea of someone with Denis' profile, writing opinion pieces on the people, the topics and the issues that the Courant has to cover, and doing it in an unsupervised way, is an intolerable one."
One possible compromise might be having Horgan's blog come under the supervision of the newspaper. But the genesis of this dispute comes from Toolan killing Horgan's newspaper column (which ran for 21 years) and reassigning him to be travel editor. When Horgan launched the blog on March 17 as a way to keep the column -- and his commentary -- alive, Toolan immediately called Horgan into his office to tell him it was a bad idea. But with the war brewing, Toolan didn't give the official order to kill it until a month later.
Though Horgan did agree to stop posting commentary on his blog, he refused to take the page down. Toolan told him not to write any more columns there or cover subjects that the Courant is covering. However, Horgan is exploiting a loophole of sorts by continuing to post daily responses to people's comments on his online guestbook -- many of which are lending support from all corners of the globe.
The 61-year-old veteran journalist had his son set up the Weblog for him, and is now a serious believer in the technology. He sees an inevitability in the power of journalists' Weblogs. "This wave of technology is irresistable for professional journalists," he says. "And when newspaper people really start doing it, watch out. Their efforts will dwarf the various Weblogs started for other reasons."
As for the big reaction in journalism circles to the blog's demise, Horgan could see that one coming. "There's a big irony factor in a newspaper that defends the rights of the Ku Klux Klan to speak their vile thoughts, and then turning on one of their own. I knew it would resonate." But the global reaction was more of a surprise, and Horgan has received e-mails from Brazil, Sweden, France, Spain and Ireland. He's upset that the Courant is getting worldwide recognition for all the wrong reasons.
While many people have sided with the Courant as simply a concerned employer that wants to retain its objective voice, Horgan continues to beat the drums of freedom of speech. "You know, the soldiers and police can't come into my house to tell me what to think and what to write on my own time, but my editor can," he says. "That's an odd business."
No matter the outcome of Horgan's legal recourse against the Courant, the outspoken journalist sees the Internet and Weblogs as a positive force for change around the world. He recently visited Fez, Morocco, and saw a line around the block at one of the city's two cybercafes. Horgan says oppressive governments won't be able to control the public as easily once the Net comes in. "When the Net exposes people to ideas, it's much more powerful than any bombs that are dropped."