December 2022

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Editorial: Starbucks, judge undermine press freedom in seeking union documents By THE BUFFALO NEWS EDITORIAL BOARD T he slippery slope argument can be overused, but with the Starbucks assault on press freedom and a fed- eral judge's unwise decision supporting it, that's where we are. The issue, broadly, is a growing interest in unionization and the fears that percolate in some employers – in this case, the coffee giant Starbucks. Its workers launched an organizing effort in a Buffalo store and the explosion it set off has now involved the federal government, via National Labor Re- lations Board and allegations of labor vio- lations, including unlawfully closing stores, terminating workers, withdrawing benefits and failure to bargain with the union. Starbucks denies wrongdoing and thinks that any problems the union has had with organizing has nothing to do with the company's activities, but with the union's publicizing of them. It's loony and a dou- bled-barreled shot at the First Amendment. Barrel one: Starbucks is arguing that the problem isn't alleged misconduct – which the NLRB believes happened – but that speaking about it is. Free speech can surely have conse- quences – who hasn't had their own words thrown back at them? – but this is a bizarre take on the right to speak out. Barrel two: It's no mistake that, along with freedom of speech and religion, the Founding Fathers included freedom of the press in the opening words of the Bill of Rights. Those liberties are among the primary characteristics of any democracy; without them, freedom wanes. Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence, understood that concept. Among his many quotations on the subject was this, from 1786, in a letter to John Jay, later to become the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: "Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it." The erosion of that right is the slippery slope on which Starbucks and U.S. District Judge John L. Sinatra Jr. have pushed the country. Starbucks is going after press freedom through the back door. In response to the NLRB's allegations, it is demanding that employees and union representatives hand over to the company all documents and recordings they have of conversations with the media about unionizing stores in Buffalo. Among the news outlets named are The Buffalo News, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian. While some states, including New York, have enacted shield laws that honor the spirit of the press freedom, no such federal law exists. Even if it did, Starbucks – with Sinatra's blessing – is evading a direct attack on press freedom by worming its way in through the records of the union it despises, not those of news organizations. Nevertheless, an attack is what it is. "I think that journalists are concerned that requiring sources to turn over their communications with reporters will have a 'chilling effect' on journalism," said Saman- tha Barbas of the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy at the University at Buffalo School of Law. Barbas specializes in First Amendment issues. Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell University's School of Industrial Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab, was similarly concerned. "This order means that every communi- cation, text, email, that you reporters had with Starbucks employees is going to Star- bucks the employer. No matter whether the employee/union person talked to you off the record or not," said Creighton, who was a labor attorney for three decades. It's also, as the workers' lawyer believes, an improper effort to gain access to thou- sands of private union documents which, he said, "an employer doesn't have a right to know about and shouldn't know about." Indeed, attorney Ian Hayes argues that Star- bucks violate labor law simply in seeking the documents. That's a legal matter for the courts to sort out. But it's worrisome that this pow- erful, ubiquitous employer, and the judge who sided with it, seem so indifferent to the consequences of their actions on press freedom. That's everyone's concern. This editorial was reprinted with the per- mission of The Buffalo News. "This order means that every communication, text, email, that you re- porters had with Starbucks employees is going to Starbucks the employ- er. No matter whether the employee/union person talked to you off the record or not." Cathy Creighton Cornell University December 2022 NewsBeat 3

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