Michael Klein, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 5, 2011
A federal jury will be asked to decide whether it is acceptable for an African American person, but not a white person, to use the “n” word in a workplace.
U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick has ruled that former Fox29 reporter-anchor Tom Burlington’s lawsuit against the station, claiming a double standard and alleging that he was the victim of racial discrimination, may go to trial. However, Surrick denied Burlington’s claim of a hostile work environment.
Burlington, who is white, was fired after using the “n” word during a June 2007 staff meeting at which reporters and producers were discussing reporter Robin Taylor’s story about the symbolic burial of the word by the Philadelphia Youth Council of the NAACP.
Burlington, who began work at the station in 2004 and is now working as a real estate agent, was suspended within days and fired after an account of the incident was published in the Philadelphia Daily News. He alleges that he “was discriminated against because of his race,” according to court documents. He claims in his lawsuit that at least two African American employees at Fox29 had used the word in the workplace and were not disciplined.
The dispute began after Taylor, who is white, used the phrase the “n” word during the 2007 staff meeting. She said participants at the burial had said the full word “at least a hundred times or more,” according to court records.
“Does this mean we can finally say the word n-?” Burlington asked colleagues, according to depositions.
Nicole Wolfe, a producer and one of the three African American employees among the nine people at the meeting, exclaimed: “I can’t believe you just said that!”
Burlington told Taylor that although he did not necessarily expect her to use the word in her story, he thought that doing so gave the story more credence.
Burlington says he used the word only once and approached several attendees after the meeting to explain himself. The Daily News account said he had used the word more than a dozen times.
On Dec. 30, Surrick denied Burlington’s attempt to prevent Fox from mentioning at trial that after the meeting, he told his former coanchor Joyce Evans that someone had referred to her as a “n- bitch.”
Burlington had said he was simply illustrating what he considered to be an unacceptable use of the word, court filings say. Evans was not at the staff meeting.
[Editor’s Note: A story filed when Tom Burlington was first fired can be read here.]