News & Politics

American University Seeks to Dismiss the $10 Million Lawsuit Filed by a WAMU Editor Accused of Creating a Hostile Work Environment

Lawsuits like Zuri Berry's "are precisely what the D.C. Council outlawed" when it passed the city's Anti-SLAPP Act, the response says.

WAMU's headquarters on Connecticut Avenue, Northwest. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

WAMU editor Zuri Berry’s lawsuit against the publication Current, American University, which operates Current as well as WAMU, and six people Berry worked with at WAMU should be dismissed under DC’s anti-SLAPP act, lawyers for the defendants write.

Berry, who remains on administrative leave amid an investigation by AU into his coworkers’ claims that he created a hostile work environment, filed a suit in October complaining that Current and several journalists he worked with “conspired to defame [him] through the publication of false statements.” He asked for $10 million in damages, saying he had been unable to find other work because of the allegations. The people named in his suit are Sasha Fernandez, who reported an article about Berry in CurrentCurrent managing editor Karen Everhart and executive director Julie Drizin, as well as his former coworkers Sasha-Ann Simons, Alana Wise, and Letese’ Clark.

The defendants’ response says lawsuits like Berry’s “are precisely what the D.C. Council outlawed” when it passed the 2010 anti-SLAPP act. SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” which the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press defines as “an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing criticism through expensive, baseless legal proceedings.”

Current reported last July that Berry was under investigation after three women of color left the station, citing Berry’s treatment of them. The defendants’ response includes statements not only from the women he sued but also from coworkers who say they witnessed Berry acting in a condescending manner and micromanaging other journalists. “People did not want to work with him,” senior editor Gabriel Bullard writes in a statement. Berry’s treatment of Clark, in particular, was “harsh and demoralizing,” growth editor Chris Chester writes.

Berry apologized to the newsroom in July for his behavior in an email that is included as an exhibit in the response. “I failed you and I failed the women of color in our newsroom,” he wrote.

DC’s anti-SLAPP law applies to this case because the defendants’ complaints about Berry were in the public interest, their lawyers write. Any statements that may have been made were either protected opinions, substantially true, or weren’t even published by the defendants, they write. (For their part, Current‘s Drizin and Everhart write that they had no substantial input into the outlet’s reporting on Berry last July.)

“D.C.’s Anti-SLAPP Act was intended to provide speakers and publishers like Ms. Clark, Ms. Wise, Ms. Simons and Current with the ability to take swift and decisive action to stem non-meritorious, speech-chilling litigation,” they write. They ask for the case to be dismissed with prejudice and for the court to award the defendants with attorneys’ costs.

Here’s the response:

Current et al. response to Berry suit by Washingtonian Magazine on Scribd

Correction: This post originally misspelled Julie Drizin’s last name in one instance. 

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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.