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Judge dismisses Sonmez lawsuit against The Washington Post

The Washington Post building in downtown Washington. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against The Washington Post and several of its editors that was filed by a staff reporter who alleged she faced discrimination on the job after she went public with her account of being a sexual assault victim.

In a ruling issued Friday in D.C. Superior Court, Judge Anthony C. Epstein said that politics reporter Felicia Sonmez had not demonstrated that The Post showed “discriminatory motive” when its editors decided to temporarily bar her from covering stories related to sexual harassment or misconduct.

Epstein noted that Sonmez alleged The Post reassigned her out of concerns “it had an advocate covering an issue she experienced.” However, that meant the company didn’t take action because of her victim status, he wrote, but rather to uphold an image of unbiased news coverage.

“News media companies have the right to adopt policies that protect not only the fact but also the appearance of impartiality,” the judge wrote.

He compared the editors’ decision to hypotheticals such as keeping a reporter who had spoken out about the personal impact of a relative’s murder from covering stories about violent crime, or a reporter who had campaigned for a political party from covering elections.

Sonmez’s attorney, Sundeep Hora, said Friday they plan to appeal the ruling, “as we strongly disagree with the Judge’s basis for dismissing this important case.”

Sonmez, who first worked for The Post from 2010 to 2013, rejoined the company in 2018 as a breaking-news reporter for the politics staff. That same year, according to court filings, she made public comments describing her sexual assault a year earlier, adding that she “stand[s] in solidarity” with another alleged victim of the same man. The Post barred her for two months from covering stories involving the #MeToo movement and the sexual assault allegations against Brett M. Kavanaugh as he underwent the confirmation process for the U.S. Supreme Court, according to her complaint, and then temporarily barred her from the subject area nearly a year later, after Sonmez spoke out critically about an article that described her assault.

Then in January 2020, according to her suit, the company briefly placed Sonmez on administrative leave after she tweeted, hours after the death of former NBA star Kobe Bryant, about the criminal charges of rape, later dropped, he had faced years earlier.

Sonmez filed suit in July 2021, saying that she suffered adverse personal and professional consequences as a result of the company’s actions. Her suit named several current and former Washington Post editors, including former executive editor Martin Baron, who has since retired, as well as senior managing editor Cameron Barr; managing editors Steven Ginsberg and Tracy Grant; financial editor Lori Montgomery; and senior politics editor Peter Wallsten.

A spokesperson for The Washington Post declined to comment on the suit’s dismissal. Baron, in an email, said that he is “grateful for a legal process that allowed the claims in this lawsuit to be evaluated objectively.”

In his ruling, Epstein wrote that Sonmez’s own account of what happened at The Post indicated that the company didn’t have an issue with her history as a victim of sexual assault “until she made public statements that could be perceived as associating herself with the #MeToo movement as a victim herself.”

But the judge made a point of closing off one specific legal strategy attempted by The Post to fight her lawsuit, which was to challenge it on freedom-of-speech grounds.

The Post had attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed under the city’s anti-SLAPP law, a measure designed to protect organizations from costly litigation intended to stifle public advocacy. The newspaper’s attorneys argued that the editors’ decision about whether to assign a reporter to a particular story was “an exercise of editorial discretion protected by the First Amendment.”

But Epstein wrote that the city statute plays a more limited role in protecting advocacy, not covering the same entire range as the First Amendment. The Post’s personnel decision, he said, “is not actual speech or expressive conduct.”

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