Suspended Allentown Columnist Mulls Legal Action

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By: Joe Strupp

A month after he ignored editors’ orders and appeared in a local gay pride parade — prompting a two-day suspension — a columnist at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. remains off the job, with his future at the paper still unknown.

But if the columnist, Frank Whelan, is not able to return, he has already laid the groundwork for three different legal challenges to his suspension, including one stemming from Allentown’s own human rights ordinance, which has a gay rights provision.

“That ordinance gives him the advantage that being gay is a protected class — that helps,” said Rick Orloski, Whelan’s attorney, who contends the suspension amounts to a violation of gay rights. He said the protection is included in the city’s human rights ordinance, which was implemented less than two years ago.

Orloski said Whelan has since remained off the job, using vacation time that ran out last Friday. “We are trying to preserve his job and his dignity,” Orloski said when asked why he did not return to work on Monday. “We are trying to come up with an amiable resolution that will preserve his job.”

He said he had been in negotiations with an official from The Tribune Company in Chicago, which owns The Morning Call, but declined to be more specific about what was being discussed. “We have been in serious discussions,” Orloski said. “Frank was, by all accounts, a valued employee who had a following.” Asked how soon Whelan might be back on the job, Orloski said, “If we’re lucky, tomorrow. I don’t know. I am optimistic.”

A Morning Call spokeswoman said Whelan remains an employee of the paper, but declined to say when or how he might return. “Because there are discussions between attorneys and it is a personnel matter, we cannot comment any further,” said the spokeswoman, Vicki Mayk.

Whelan filed a sexual discrimination complaint with the Allentown Human Relations Commission shortly after learning of his suspension on June 21, Orloski said. He said the paper’s effort to keep him from participating in the gay rights parade violated the city’s human rights ordinance. Editors have since said that Whelan violated the paper’s conflict of interest policy by participating in the parade, which they contend is a political event.

“It is not a political event,” Orloski said. Whelan declined comment Tuesday. Editor Ardith Hilliard did not respond to a request for comment.

The dispute stems from Whelan’s participation in the parade, which occurred on June 17, in which Whelan and his partner, Bob Wittman, served as grand marshals. Editors have said that Whelan did not seek permission to participate in the event and they only found out about it after receiving a press release promoting the parade.

Hilliard has said participation was a violation of the paper’s ethics policy, which Whelan and others signed earlier this year, and that prohibits editorial staffers from engaging in “public demonstrations in favor of or opposed to a cause.”

“He was informed that this was a conflict,” Hilliard told E&P last month. “The key thing here is that the parade was described by the group as a gay rights event.”

Whelan has said he did not consider the event to be political or controversial.

He was told on June 15, two days before the parade, that his involvement would constitute a breach of the code. A day after the event, the paper ran a story about the festivities, which included reference to Whelan’s and Wittman’s participation. It also reported that Hilliard had objected to Whelan’s role.

Whelan said shortly afterward he was so offended by the coverage and the paper’s reaction that he did not want to go to work the following Monday and Tuesday, June 19 or 20. He said the newspaper contacted him june 21 and informed him that his time off would be considered an unpaid suspension.

If Whelan cannot come to an agreement with the paper, Orloski has already taken steps for two other legal actions against the Morning Call, in addition to the human relations commission complaint. On June 23, Whelan filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, while also filing a summons with the Northhampton County Court of Common Pleas that was served on the Morning Call July 3, Orloski said.

Under Pennsylvania law, the summons is the first step toward a lawsuit, Orloski said. It includes no specific charges or complaints, but gives Whelan up to two years to file a formal action. Orloski said no further legal action has been taken, but said that if a lawsuit is filed, it would likely accuse the paper of libel or slander for its statements against Whelan following the gay pride parade.

“We have a libel claim that comes from accusing him of being unethical,” Orloski said.

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