By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) -Gannett Co Inc, the largest U.S. newspaper publisher, is facing a lawsuit claiming its efforts to diversify newsrooms led to discrimination against white workers.
The proposed class action was filed in Virginia federal court on Friday by five current and former Gannett employees who say they were fired or passed over for promotions to make room for less-qualified women and minorities.
The plaintiffs say those decisions were driven by a policy announced in 2020 under which Gannett aims to have its newsrooms reflect the demographics of the communities they cover by 2025.
Gannett has also tied executive bonuses and promotions to success meeting the goals outlined in the policy, according to the lawsuit.
"Gannett executed their reverse race discrimination policy with a callous indifference towards civil rights laws or the welfare of the workers, and prospective workers, whose lives would be upended by it," the plaintiffs said in the lawsuit.
Polly Grunfeld Sack, Virginia-based Gannett's chief legal counsel, said the company always seeks to recruit and retain the most qualified workers.
"We will vigorously defend our practice of ensuring equal opportunities for all our valued employees against this meritless lawsuit," Sack said in a statement.
The lawsuit comes amid growing backlash to increasingly prevalent corporate diversity policies. Unlike other pending cases brought by conservative groups, the claims against Gannett were filed directly by the company's employees.
Starbucks Corp, Target Corp, and Progressive Insurance are among the companies that have faced shareholder lawsuits challenging diversity programs. A group founded by former Trump administration officials has filed more than a dozen complaints with a federal anti-bias agency accusing large companies of discriminating against white and male workers.
Many experts expect an uptick in such challenges following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that struck down race-conscious college admissions policies. On Tuesday, a group formed by conservative activist Edward Blum, who spearheaded the Supreme Court case, sued two major U.S. law firms over fellowships they offer to racial minorities and LGBT people.
The lawsuit against Gannett notes that the Supreme Court said in the decision that "eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it."
In the lawsuit, plaintiff Steven Bradley says he was fired from a management job at the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, New York, and then passed over for a different position with Gannett because he is white.
Bradley in April filed a similar lawsuit against Gannett in New York state court. The status of that case was unclear.
Another plaintiff, Logan Barry, says he was in line for promotion to a leadership position at the Progress-Index in Petersburg, Virginia. After Gannett acquired the newspaper in 2019, the job went to a Black woman with fewer qualifications, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs accused Gannett of violating a federal law prohibiting race discrimination in contracts. They are seeking to require Gannett to eliminate the 2020 policy, along with lost pay and benefits and other money damages.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Daniel Wallis)