Award-winning Pittsburgh news anchor Wendy Bell has brought a federal lawsuit in response to her termination in March by the local station where she'd worked for almost two decades. Bell, who is white, was fired for comments she posted on Facebook in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in a predominantly-black area of the city.
On her Facebook page, Bell discussed a recent news story involving a tragic event that occurred at a backyard barbecue. Six people were killed and four were injured.
"Mental Sketch" of Killers
Although two suspects are in jail on other charges, no one has yet been charged in the murders. In her post, Bell described her "mental sketch" of the killers as "young black men, likely in their teens or in their early 20s [with] multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs..."
She went on to talk about a young black man she had encountered working as a bus boy at a local restaurant who gave her hope. She talked about "the smile that beamed across that young worker's face as we caught each other's gaze. I wonder how long it had been since someone told him he was special."
Termination Followed Public Outcry
Bell says that she was simply lamenting the epidemic black-on-black crime in Pittsburgh and nationwide. However, the public reaction to her post was swift and strong. She was accused of being racist and having a "savior complex." She had her defenders, but they seemed to be outnumbered. Despite her apology, the station, WTAE-TV, fired her.
Suit Contends That Firing Was Based on Race
Bell filed a lawsuit accusing her employer of violating her rights under the Civil Rights Act. She's asking for her job back as well as back pay and attorney fees.
The suit contends that had she said the same things about white people, the station "would not have fired her, much less disciplined her." It also contends that the station "consistently downplays misconduct" by other on-air employees based on gender and race.
While those with high-profile jobs may be held to a different standard than others whose words aren't as closely followed, this case raises the question of if and when employees can be fired or disciplined for their social media activity. Employment discrimination attorneys can provide guidance and protection in what is still relatively new legal terrain.
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