|March of Events|
Court's decision on gay marriage creates a Catch .22 for some papers
By LAYNE BRUCE
JACKSON – By the time the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in late June legalizing same sex marriage, there probably weren’t very many people left legitimately surprised by the ruling.
Still, folks in some corners – the newspaper business, for instance – weren’t entirely sure what to make of handling the historic change. Would same sex engagement and marriage notices start appearing on society and lifestyles pages alongside those of straight couples?
The sensitivity of the issue prompted me to seek the input of MPA general counsel and libel hotline attorney John Henegan earlier this year. Should member newspapers prepare themselves for what at the time appeared to be an eventuality, I asked.
“There is no federal law or state law that prohibits a newspaper from refusing to publish a same-sex wedding announcement,” Henegan wrote in his reply.
Despite the fact that at least three municipalities in Mississippi (Bay St. Louis, Waveband and Hattiesburg) had adopted rsolutions rejecting discrimination against same sex couples, these declarations have little teeth to them other than to make a statement. There are no sanctions for violating the resolutions.
A NUMBER OF MPA member papers said from the get-go that they’d accept such announcements. Only a handful reached out after an email notice from our office and said they’d most likely not run such articles out of concern of either a reader or advertiser backlash. Or both.
The most notable, of course, has been the Daily Journal in Tupelo and its sister publications announcing the papers will not accept such notices. The decision was detailed in a column by Journal, Inc., CEO Clay Foster.
(Both the Tupelo flagship paper and its affiliated Itawamba County Times did cover news of the first same sex marriage licenses issued in their respective counties, by the way).
As Henegan pointed out in his correspondence, a newspaper is within its right to refuse to publish these articles. After all, newspapers are part of the private sector and no publisher can be coerced or forced into printing any content they don’t want to publish.
But by refusing same sex announcements, therein lies a Catch-22: Just because you’re within in your right to refuse, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone won’t sue for alleged discriminatory practices.
THINK ABOUT the Christian bakery in Oregon that refused to make a wedding cake for a same sex couple. That dust-up ended in a $135,000 fine being recommended by a judge for the state bureau of labor. It’s possible the fine will be reduced on appeal.
Nevertheless, it demonstrates, as we all know, just about anyone can sue anybody at any time for anything.
In my admittedly limited professional opinion, papers contemplating what to do when a same sex notice lands in their inbox must weigh the backlash from readers and a possibly messy and costly defense should someone feel aggrieved and sue for alleged discrimination.