In Lawsuit, UPI Reporter Says She Was Fired for Being Lesbian
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A former United Press International reporter filed a $12.75 million lawsuit against the news agency and a Milwaukee-based religious broadcaster Thursday, contending she was fired because she is a lesbian and wrote a freelance story for a gay publication.
The U.S. District Court lawsuit alleges that UPI fired Julie Brienza, the news agency’s Supreme Court reporter, after being pressured by Vic Eliason, who is executive director of Wisconsin Voice of Christian Youth Inc.
The suit contends that after Ms. Brienza interviewed Eliason on April 10 for a freelance article she was writing about the influence of the ″religious right″ on broadcasting, Eliason began a campaign to have her fired.
The suit alleges that Eliason buys news from UPI, and that he contacted UPI management to complain about Ms. Brienza writing for The Washington Blade, a news weekly. He then urged listeners to his radio network to jam UPI’s telephone lines demanding her dismissal, the suit said.
On April 27, UPI fired her, accusing her of violating freelancing rules.
″UPI terminated Ms. Brienza’s employment because of her sexual orientation, and because she was writing a freelance article for a gay and lesbian newspaper,″ the suit contends.
UPI spokesman Milt Capps said Thursday he could not comment on the suit until he had seen it. But earlier, Capps had denied that Ms. Brienza’s firing was due to pressure from religious broadcasters and said it was based on violations of UPI work rules.
Officials at Wisconsin Voice of Christian Youth Inc. in Milwaukee did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The suit seeks $750,000 in general damages, plus $12 million in punitive damages - $10 million from Eliason and $2 million from UPI - for, among other things, alleged violation of privacy, loss of income and violation of a District of Columbia law that prohibits discrimination in employment based on a person’s sexual orientation. The suit contends Wisconsin’s ″hate crime″ law also was violated.
Besides the $12.75 million, the suit seeks return of Ms. Brienza’s job, back pay, and a retraction from Eliason and his group.
The suit acknowledges that Ms. Brienza used UPI’s internal message system to retrieve information on Eliason from the news agency’s Milwaukee bureau and that she made two long-distance phone calls for the story from UPI’s Washington office.
UPI rules, according to the suit, prohibit employees from freelancing on company time, doing outside work that could compete with UPI or writing articles that take an advocacy position.
But Ms. Brienza, at a news conference Thursday, contended her use of company facilities was minimal, and that other UPI employees routinely did the same for personal reasons or for outside work. She said The Blade is not an advocacy publication and that she had gotten permission from UPI management prior to working on the article.
She said UPI’s actions were out of proportion to the offense and that the issue in her firing really was her sexual orientation.