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Blogging — the publication by individuals of comments on personal Internet sites called Web logs — is becoming a growing legal and personnel headache for employers across the country. Derogatory comments about employers and fellow workers, leaks of proprietary information and other objectionable material broadcast into cyberspace have led to firings and lawsuits in dozens of cases nationwide. Now the problem has surfaced in South Florida, in the newsroom of Miami New Times, the alternative weekly newspaper that is known for exposing seamy doings elsewhere. A controversy over publicly accessible blog observations about current and former staffers posted by two New Times editors — including managing editor Jean Carey, who writes a column called “The Bitch” — has caused major turmoil at the company. It generated weeklong, unpaid suspensions of the two editors and the paper’s star columnist, Tristram Korten, who had confronted the editors over their blogs earlier this month. Editor-in-chief Jim Mullin, in an internal memo Monday, decried what he called “a putrid mound of pettiness associated conduct that was clearly unprofessional.” He added that the episode had produced “a very bad stench in the office.” To deal with the situation, a top executive of the Denver-based New Times chain visited the Miami office Thursday. Mullin declined to comment for this article, saying he’s not free to discuss personnel matters. Shown the language of one of the personal blog entries in question, Carmen S. Johnson, a shareholder at Akerman Senterfitt in Miami who represents employers in workplace cases, but who is not involved in this matter, said such language is legally actionable. If management did not take action to stop such conduct, she said, the company could face liability on a vicarious liability theory. “I have never heard of a supervisor making such disparaging public comments about subordinates,” Johnson said. In similar situations at other companies around the country, both media and nonmedia outfits, heads have rolled. Media and employment attorneys interviewed for this story were not aware of any other Florida cases. But Samuel Lewis, a partner at FeldmanGale in Miami who practices computer and Internet law, predicts it’s just a matter of time. “I fully expect to see a case one of these days where an employee uses a blog to say something his boss doesn’t like and the company fires him,” Lewis said. Earlier this year, a reporter for the Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., lost her job when she wrote on her blog: “I really hate my place of employment.” The same thing happened to a Wells Fargo Bank employee who made disparaging remarks about fellow workers. Even blogs that don’t trash or threaten colleagues or superiors can be perilous. A flight attendant for Delta Air Lines was fired for posting photos of herself aboard an empty plane, on grounds that they were damaging to the firm’s image. A journalism professor at Boston University was terminated earlier this month for posting sexually suggestive comments about one of his students on an Internet blogging site. While it is often impossible to know how widely blog items are read, they are easily accessible to millions of people around the globe via the Internet. “The potential for damage is almost unlimited,” said Mark R. Cheskin, a labor and employment law attorney and partner at Hogan & Hartson in Miami. DANGER IS GROWING According to the national public relations firm Edelman and Intelliseek, 20,000 new blogs are created in the United States every day. A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded that more than 8 million American adults have created blogs already, and that number is expected to reach 10 million by the end of this year. Moreover, the survey found that some 32 million Americans are blog readers. Even so, the blogging phenomenon is new enough that most companies have not established employee policies on the issue. Last May, IBM became one of a few firms to develop blogging guidelines; it issued them to its 329,000 employees. The rules specify that IBMers must identify themselves and their corporate role any time that they write about the company. Cheskin, who has been asked for guideline advice by some of his clients, said he prefers to fit blogging into existing rules of conduct. Most of the time, he said, current policies cover blogging situations — “treat one another with respect, don’t reveal proprietary information and so on. Old common sense rules should apply.” Until now, most litigation across the country has involved cases where employees have been discharged for blogs perceived to have hurt the company or their boss’ feelings. But potentially far more dangerous are lawsuits for defamation or libel filed by the targets of disparaging blogs — lawsuits that could name the blogger’s employer as a defendant. Attorneys say there have not yet been enough cases to establish how First Amendment and defamation law apply to blogs. But they predict that bloggers almost certainly will be held to the same standards as anyone publishing defamatory material in other forms. Edward M. Mullins, who practices media law at Astigarraga Davis Mullins & Grossman in Miami, noted that the First Amendment is for “matters of public concern.” Most comments about individuals are not matters of public concern and therefore are unprotected by the U.S. Constitution. Mullins also pointed out that if an aggrieved person decides to sue, the employees posting blogs are not likely to have deep pockets. That makes employers a particularly inviting target. RESPONSE TO EEOC COMPLAINT The blogs posted by the Miami New Times editors so far have not prompted any lawsuits. Two former female reporters who were targets of harsh personal comments in the blogs say they have no intention of suing. The blog entries at issue recently were removed after they were discovered by other New Times staffers. But the blogs have triggered turmoil at the award-winning newspaper and led to disciplinary action. Still, attorneys interviewed for this article, who are not involved in the matter, say at least one of the former reporters has sufficient basis for a defamation suit. One of the bloggers was Jean Carey, who supervises staff reporters and has served as managing editor since February 2004. The Internet domain on which her blog appeared, www.italiangreyhounds.org, named after her pet dogs, is registered to Carey. She subtitled her blog site “dogs, boys, bitches, media, classics, art and stuff.” One trigger for some of Carey’s objectionable blog postings: Last year, a former New Times staff writer who was terminated filed a gender discrimination claim against Carey with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint has since been dismissed. Carey responded by posting a series of derogatory remarks about the former reporter, whom she supervised. Carey expressed jealousy over the former reporter’s possible romantic relationship with a former New Times staffer with whom she also had a relationship. Carey’s most strident post about the woman was written during regular working hours on a weekday, which suggests that it was done in the office on a company computer. In the post, Carey criticized the former reporter’s appearance, professional skills, sexual conduct and mental stability. Carey’s blog also referred by name to other current and former employees and outsiders — including a Miami Herald reporter — as “totally nasty, mean, classless girls.” It also mentioned Mario Artecona, director of the Miami Business Forum, in a list of “constant negative anti- New Times forces.” On a separate blog, which also was recently taken down, New Times’ calendar editor, Lyssa Oberkreser, a close friend of Carey, posted even harsher comments on July 2 about a different female staffer, an award-winning reporter who had just resigned. Oberkreser’s blog, http://librarianlyssa.blogspot.com — she formerly worked as a librarian — appeared on a so-called sponsored blog site; it’s not possible to identify the formal ownership of such sites. But her photo appeared on the site, and current and former New Times staffers, who were interviewed for this article but did not want to be identified, said she has not denied that it was her blog. In Oberkreser’s blog — which was subtitled “Sex and the Single Librarian” — Oberkreser expressed relief that the reporter had departed and made nasty comments about her physical appearance, weight and sexual morals. Akerman’s Carmen Johnson said the type of language Carey used about the first reporter is actionable. “Even if nobody sues, it is clearly unprofessional conduct damaging to the company,” she added. ONE STAFFER OBJECTED According to current and former New Times staffers, there was widespread anger when these blog postings became generally known around the newsroom. But only columnist Tristram Korten, a former investigator with the Miami-Dade County Office of the Inspector General, confronted Carey and Oberkreser about the comments. Korten declined to discuss details but confirmed that he had a contentious discussion earlier this month with the two women. Shortly thereafter, Korten, an award-winning, six-year veteran of the newspaper, was notified that he was the target of a company disciplinary proceeding. New Times executive managing editor Christine Brennan visited the Miami office on Biscayne Boulevard to resolve the situation and hand down suspensions to Korten, Carey and Oberkreser. An obvious lesson for other employers is to closely monitor staff blogging behavior as well as overall staff relations and morale, to head off such a crisis as it’s difficult to quickly restore a constructive working environment. That was recognized by editor-in-chief Mullin in his internal staff memo last Monday. He said that clearing up the blogging controversy at his newspaper is just a start. More than a dozen editorial staffers reportedly have left the newspaper over the past 17 months. “Now begins the longer and more difficult process of rebuilding trust and repairing damage, both internally at the paper and externally around town,” Mullin wrote.

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