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Court Violated Rights of Northwest Flight Attendants

Feb. 1, 2000

Court Violated Rights of Northwest Flight Attendants

Public Citizen Seeks to Have Restraining Order Revoked

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A federal district court violated the First Amendment rights of two Northwest Airlines flight attendants by forbidding them from engaging in certain speech-related activities — an order that could require them to censor their Web sites, according to papers filed Tuesday by Public Citizen in federal appellate court.

According to the filing, made by Public Citizen Litigation Group in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, a Minnesota district court violated the two men s rights on Jan. 5 when it issued a temporary restraining order against them. The order forbade them from “approving of” or “permitting” a sickout. The court issued the restraining order without notifying the men, so they weren t represented at a hearing held to discuss it. Public Citizen is seeking to have the order vacated.

For one flight attendant, the order could mean that he must censor the comments that others post on his site. For the other man, it means that he must be extra cautious in what information he posts, lest the company accuse him of supporting a sickout and therefore violating the district court s order. A violation could lead to a fine and/or jail time.

“This is a flagrant violation of basic due process rights, and it would have dangerous repercussions if it is permitted to stand,” said Paul Alan Levy of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. “A grave injustice has been done to these two individuals, because the order is a blatant case of restraint of speech that has historically been forbidden.” Detroit attorney Barbara Harvey is co-counsel in the case.

Senior Northwest Airlines flight attendants Kevin Griffin and Ted Reeve each created Web sites last year during contentious contract negotiations between Northwest and the Teamsters Local 2000. Both men aimed to provide an easily accessible source of information pertaining to the contract negotiations.

Reeve s site contains such information as a history of the union, a list of officers, notices of membership meetings, communications to all flight attendants by company officials about contract negotiations, union messages and media reports about contract negotiations. Griffin s site includes comparative pay charts, union bylaws and contract “low lights.” It also provides an opportunity for people to post comments.

Some people posted comments encouraging attendants to participate in a sickout. When they did, Griffin posted a message asking people to “refrain from calling for certain actions that may be illegal.”

Neither man participated in a sickout that occurred in late December. In fact, Reeve has not called in sick once during his 10 years with the airline.

In documents seeking the restraining order, Northwest alleges that 19 individuals — all union officials and representatives except for Reeve and Griffin — had fomented the sickout. The airline said that Reeve and Griffin had created Web sites, that calls for illegal job actions had been posted on one of them and that Griffin himself had posted a comment that implicitly called for a sickout. In fact, however, the message the airline submitted to the court was written by another flight attendant.

Griffin and Reeve heard about the restraining order only after the court issued it, even though they could have been contacted at work, home or through e-mail. They never had the opportunity to argue that there was no basis to the order as it applied to them, Public Citizen s filing says.

The injunction constitutes a prior restraint of speech, Public Citizen s filing contends. The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment bars injunctions against speech without notice.

“This order is a classic prior restraint of First Amendment rights that is forbidden in all but the most extreme circumstances,” Levy said. “It is an elementary First Amendment principle that citizens are entitled to express their sympathy for illegal activities as long as they don t incite them.”

Further, the law is clear that individuals cannot be held liable for the acts or advocacy of others, the filing states. The Communications Decency Act provides that one cannot be held liable for a message that someone else posts to their Web site.