George Gombossy, who penned a consumer-advocacy column for the Hartford Courant before being fired last month, has filed suit against the Courant (and its parent company, the Tribune Company) alleging that he was fired in retaliation for his lawful speech.
Gombossy’s lawsuit is the second lawsuit or complaint filed against the Tribune in the last few months by a reporter. (See prior coverage of a complaint by Fox 61 reporter Shelly Sindland and Ms. Sindland’s comment on the firing of Gombossy.)
The complaint is detailed with Gombossy’s suggestions that he was fired because he was going to publish an article critical of a major Hartford Courant advertiser. It should be noted that the Courant has steadfastly denied the allegations before (and I would expect them to do so here.) Gombossy’s allegations are just that — allegations — and readers should be cautious about drawing conclusions from them at this early stage.
(UPDATE: The Courant has, in fact, formally denied the allegations in a statement released earlier today. "George Gombossy has consistently mischaracterized the circumstances surrounding his departure from The Hartford Courant for his own personal gain. Mr. Gombossy was not under any contract requiring his continued employment as our consumer reporter and a business decision was made to move in another direction that did not require his particular talents." "It was the Courant’s right to make that decision. We stand by it and we will defend it.")
Gombossy’s complaint raises a single count of a violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-51q. Although the statute has some peculiarities, that law tries to apply First Amendment protections (which typically apply only to public employees) to private workers. The extent of that protection is the subject of much debate and caselaw.
Indeed, a natural defense for the employer may be to raise the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos – a U.S. Supreme Court case decided a few years ago which held that employees speaking in fulfillment of their job responsibilities are not protected by the First Amendment. In other words, speech which "owes its existence to [an]… employee’s professional responsibilities," is not protected, according to the Court. The extent to which Garcetti applies to state free speech claims may very well decide the outcome of the case.
The Courant has until October 15th to file an appearance in the matter and another 30 days beyond that to file a response. Given how slow cases in state court move, don’t expect to hear much of substance about this case for the remainder of the year.