Ex-Kcmu Staffers Sue Station, UW
A group of eleven former staffers and three listeners of the University of Washington-owned radio station KCMU-FM filed a lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court in Seattle against the UW, the station's manager, Chris Knab, and UW director of broadcast services Wayne Roth.
In the suit, the former staffers, all volunteers, claim their constitutional right to free speech was violated when they were dismissed from KCMU for discussing the station's internal affairs in public and on the air. They say they were not editorializing and that the discussions on air were legitimate news stories. But according to Roth, KCMU's policies prohibit any discussion or criticism of the station's affairs on the air.
For several months, KCMU volunteers and management have been involved in a bitter dispute over the station's future. Some volunteers believed management was changing the station's alternative programming to a more "commercial" mainstream format.
Last month, several station volunteers and members of Censorship Undermines Radio Station Ethics (CURSE) picketed KCMU because of the station's recent program changes and staff dismissals. According to Grace Crowley, CURSE director and former KCMU news director and DJ, 22 volunteers have left the station in the past two months. On Monday, two others announced their resignations.
The CURSE protest forced the radio station to reduce its nighttime hours. Although KCMU is a 24-hour public radio station, it currently is on the air Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m.-1 a.m., and Sundays, 6 a.m.-11 p.m.
Susan Ward, CURSE member and former KCMU DJ, said the station's guidelines on discussing internal affairs with the public were too vague. "It's absurd for public radio not to be allowed to discuss policies," she said.
Knab disagreed. "The station's guidelines were quite clear," he said. "I wrote a memo to clarify it, and it was posted for a long time."
Jim Lobsenz, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, says the fact that the plaintiffs are unpaid volunteers and listeners, rather than employees, does not affect their First Amendment rights.
The key issue, according to Lobsenz, is that the UW is a unit of government rather than a private employer. The First Amendment guarantee would not apply to policies of a private employer, he said yesterday.
Knab said about 30 new people have expressed interest in working for KCMU.
Assistant attorney general Nancy Thygesen Day, who is representing the university, was unavailable for comment.
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