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Washington Post Union Blasts Paper for Suspending Reporter Over Kobe Bryant Tweets

The Guild expresses "alarm and dismay" about Felicia Sonmez's administrative leave.

Photograph by Evy Mages

The Washington Post Newspaper Guild has expressed “alarm and dismay” over the suspension of Post reporter Felicia Sonmez.

Sonmez, a national political reporter whose byline is on the paper’s front page Monday, was suspended after Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash Sunday, and she subsequently tweeted about the sexual assault allegations he faced in 2003.

“National political reporter Felicia Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy,” a statement from managing editor for staff development and standards Tracy Grant reads, continuing: “The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.”

This is not the first time that The Post has sought to control how Felicia speaks on matters of sexual violence,” the Guild writes in its statement, continuing:

Felicia herself is a survivor of assault who bravely came forward with her story two years ago. When articles attacking her were published in other outlets, The Post did not release a statement in support of one of its respected political reporters. Instead, management issued a warning letter against Felicia for violating The Post’s vague and inconsistently enforced social media guidelines.

This appears to be a reference to a letter Sonmez wrote to the Atlantic last October, which she tweeted about.

A report that Sonmez was suspended not for sharing a link to an article about Bryant’s sexual assault allegations  but because she tweeted a screenshot of a nasty message in her inbox has proved difficult for Washingtonian to confirm. Sonmez told the Post‘s Erik Wemple she had not heard anything about that. The paper’s PR department sent me Grant’s already well-circulated statement when I asked, adding the paper does “not have anything additional to share.”

It’s not clear what part of the the Post‘s social media policy Sonmez may have violated. The Guild says she is “being censured for making a statement of fact.” Wemple reports she received an email from Grant saying her tweets weren’t relevant to her coverage area, and that “your behavior on social media is making it harder for others to do their work as Washington Post journalists.”

The current policy cautions employees that “social media postings should not adversely affect the integrity of The Post’s journalism, adversely affect your job performance or the performance of your coworkers, or otherwise adversely affect The Post’s legitimate business interests.” The Post added language to the policy in 2017 to prohibit employees from posting anything that disparaged advertisers, a change the union resisted. With regard to the Post itself, the union negotiated a rule that prohibited “maliciously false statements about The Post or its agents, managers, supervisors, employees, products or services.” True statements are fine.

Newsroom employees are supposed to get some latitude under the policy, which reads, “For newsroom employees, nothing in this policy is designed to impact or limit their coverage or social media postings that are permitted under the newsroom’s Digital Publishing Guidelines.” (Post owner Jeff Bezos‘s other business, Amazon, has not yet replied to Washingtonian‘s June 27, 2017, query about its social media policy, after asking for and receiving a little more information about our story, but we have not yet given up hope that we may hear back.)

Bryant visited the paper’s newsroom in October 2018, an occasion that rubbed some employees the wrong way because of the past assault allegations and also because the paper still covered him. Nonetheless, many staffers lined up for selfies with the NBA legend.

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.