Blogging, Lawsuit of the Day, Media and Journalism

Lawsuit of the Day: Liberal Bloggers v. Arianna Huffington

The high priestess of liberal blogging: Arianna Huffington.

The gorgeous and glamorous Arianna Huffington, reigning empress of the liberal blogosphere, has been sued by some of her not-so-loyal subjects.

This morning, a group of unpaid bloggers for the Huffington Post, led by union organizer and journalist Jonathan Tasini, filed a class-action lawsuit against the HuffPo; its foundress, La Arianna; and media giant AOL, which bought HuffPo back in February. The gist of the lawsuit, as Tasini told Jeff Bercovici of Forbes, is that the site’s unpaid writers “must share in the value they create” — $315 million worth of value, based on what AOL paid for the Huffington Post.

As a writer myself, I’m all in favor of writers being paid for what they do. But the lawsuit against HuffPo strikes me as a bit dubious….

Writer compensation should be determined in advance, as a matter of contract. It should not be imposed after the fact, through litigation — and after the writers in question expressly agreed to write for free (as they are perfectly capable of doing, in this free country of ours).

In a press conference this morning, Jonathan Tasini used some over-the-top rhetoric to explain the lawsuit: “In my view, the Huffington Post’s bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation.” My knowledge of U.S. history could be better, but my recollection is that slaves didn’t consent to their enslavement. And weren’t fed Greek cookies and rugelach when the plantation got sold for millions.

Tasini continued:

“[Huffington] wants to pocket the tens of millions of dollars she reaped from the hard work of those bloggers….This all could have been avoided had Arianna Huffington not acted like the Wal-Marts, the Waltons, Lloyd Blankfein, which is basically to say, ‘Go screw yourselves, this is my money.'”

Ah, okay — now we’re getting more traction. This isn’t a legal argument, but a moral one, as well as a public-relations point. And liberals care about morals and PR and stuff, right?

(If a conservative person acts greedily, at least they’re not being hypocritical. The names trotted out by Tasini — Wal-Mart, the Waltons, Lloyd Blankfein — don’t cause conservatives to cringe.)

“We are going to make Arianna Huffington a pariah in the progressive community,” Tasini vowed. “No one will blog for her. She’ll never [be invited to] speak. We will picket her home. We’re going to make it clear that, until you do justice here, your life is going to be a living hell.”

In other words: “Arianna, we’re going to annoy the hell out of you, until you make this case go away through settlement. Maybe you can give us all free digital subscriptions to the Huffington Post?”

Setting aside the morality and public-relations issues, what is the legal theory here? From Jeff Bercovici:

Jesse Strauss, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the suit is based on a claim of unjust enrichment. “The legal theory we’re going on is one based in common law,” he said. “This is not a statutory claim….This is not a contract claim.”

In other words, the fact that the vast majority of Huffington Post’s 9,000 bloggers signed on without any expectation of direct monetary gain is irrelevant to this claim. “Rather, it’s the value contributed to the Huffington Post, which is very much amenable to class treatment,” says Strauss.

That value, in the plaintiffs’ reckoning, is $105 million, or one-third of the price AOL paid to acquire Huffpo.

So, readers, what do you think? Is unjust enrichment a valid theory of recovery for the HuffPo bloggers?

As you mull that over, here is the HuffPo side of the story for your consideration, from a company spokesperson:

“The lawsuit is wholly without merit. As we’ve said before, our bloggers use our platform — as well as other unpaid group blogs across the web — to connect and help their work be seen by as many people as possible. It’s the same reason people go on TV shows: to promote their views and ideas. HuffPost bloggers can cross-post their work on other sites, including their own. Aside from our group blog, to which thousands of people from around the world contribute, we operate a journalistic enterprise with hundreds of paid staff editors, writers, and reporters.”

In other words, HuffPo bloggers write for the exposure. As the old joke goes, “People die from exposure — why would I want to write for it?”

Fair enough. But isn’t that exactly what the Huffington Post bloggers signed up for, of their own free will? Most of them willingly, even eagerly, agreed to write for the site for free. Should they now be able to revisit the bargain they previously struck, just because the pot of money is now bigger?

(That’s essentially what the Winklevoss twins tried to do with respect to their Facebook settlement. And so far it hasn’t worked out for them.)

Okay, I’ve rambled on enough. Readers, what do you think of this lawsuit? Let us know, in the comments.

AOL-Huffpo Suit Seeks $105M: ‘This Is About Justice’ [Mixed Media / Forbes]
AOL, Arianna Huffington Hit with Class Action Suit [Mixed Media / Forbes]

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