By: Dorothy Giobbe
Editor fired for refusing to submit to newly implemented drug test; four employees follow her lead; management calls test a step toward solving the nation’s drug problem sp.
WHEN VALARIE HARRING walked out of the North Port (Fla.) Sun Herald newsroom in September, it was in protest of what she calls “the witch- hunt of the 1990s.”
Harring, an award-winning reporter and editor employed by the newspaper’s parent company, Sun Coast Media Group, for eight years, was fired after she refused to submit to a newly implemented drug-testing policy.
Eventually, four employees followed her lead. Harring objected to the policy on several grounds, based mostly on the Fourth Amendment and Florida’s privacy law.
Harring’s situation is hardly unique. As some newspapers begin to implement drug-testing policies that mirror those enforced in the business community, many find themselves uncomfortably positioned between protecting corporate interests and defending the very principles that they hold dear.
The right to privacy, control of off-duty behavior and the validity of drug testing are hotly contested issues in the larger debate about the role of newspapers when confronted with policies that may be embraced by government and business but that raise constitutional concerns.
“Personally, I wouldn’t have had a problem with taking the [drug] test,” Harring said. “I certainly don’t think anyone should work under the influence. The issue isn’t the test so much as condoning a policy that although legal under Florida law, I believe to be unconstitutional and particularly inappropriate for newspapers to be a part of.”
While there are few federal drug- testing statutes, many states have drafted drug-testing legislation. Generally, the courts have supported drug testing when there is an overriding interest in promoting public safety; drug testing of transit workers has been allowed, for example. Other laws vary according to whether the employer is public or private.
“The problem that people in the newspaper business have is that drug testing has repeatedly been declared unconstitutional in the public sector,” Harring said. “You can’t, for example, randomly test teachers in public schools or firefighters.”
Robert Vedder, vice president of Sun Coast Media, said, “What happens at a business is not the same as what happens in public. A business has the right to enforce certain rules. For instance, although we believe in freedom of speech, in our place of business, profanity is not tolerated. In regard to drug testing, it is comforting to know that the government realizes this and has set guidelines that let a business test for drugs.”
The Drug Free Workplace Act of 1988 while not enforcing drug testing supports an employer’s right to do so.
“[Implementing the policy] was an agonizing decision,” Vedder said. “We in the newspaper business generally hold that freedoms of all kinds are very important to defend and support. We criticized every aspect of [the policy] and made lots of changes, and I’m sure we will improve it still as we learn from it.”
Sun Coast’s overriding concern, Vedder said, “was to try to be a solution to this terrible disease [of drug abuse]. That’s why we made a decision that cut squarely into those foundation principles we protect, hopefully for just as big and less selfish principles and goals. It hurts to lose a few employees. But we can say that we are, in fact, doing more than preaching, more than reporting, more than editorializing. We are trying to solve this problem.”
Vedder compared the response to the drug-testing policy to the “traumatic” reaction that the company’s no-smoking policy engendered when it was introduced a few years ago.
But that’s comparing apples and oranges, Harring said, because not only is smoking legal, “research shows that drug testing does not measure on-the-job intoxication.”
Traditional drug tests use urinalysis to measure only the presence of certain drug by-products without determining when or where the drugs were taken.
“It steps over the bounds of banning particular substance use on the job, and by condoning that, businesses take on an inappropriate law enforcement role,” Harring said.
She sees a dangerous precedent in papers adopting policies that some courts have ruled unconstitutional.
“Traditionally, a newspaper’s role was to stand aside and function as society’s watchdog,” Harring said. “Papers have stood apart and pointed out that the emperor has no clothes rather than cloak the emperor.
“People at the paper, to the best of my knowledge, are still in disagreement with the policy, though most of them did go ahead and take the test. [But] I could not continue to work for a paper that cloaks itself in the First Amendment, only to trample on the Fourth.” However, she may consider taking a new-hire drug test in the future, she said.
“I just think it’s inappropriate for employers to have an ongoing policy for drug testing, and I think it’s particularly inappropriate for a newspaper to be part of that.”
Harring predicted that the policy would be declared unconstitutional after abuses to privacy, among other things, are proven.
For now, she said, “These are the types of issues that need to be exposed by the media, not condoned by them.”