Zinser Law Firm celebrates milestone
|Mike Zinser of The Zinser Law Firm|
"I just believe that symbolically, since I represent the print media, I should have a print bulletin," he said.
Newspapers aren't the only clients of the Nashville, Tenn., law firm that celebrated its 25th anniversary May 17. But since Zinser represents some 200 to 300 daily newspapers as well as several circulation trade associations, executives from across the country turned out for dinner, dancing and tributes at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Congressman Diane Black, R-Tenn., started the celebration by leading the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America.
The firm has made its mark in employment issues such as whether carriers are independent contractors or newspaper employees. Zinser has also been involved in labor and union issues. His firm counseled the Houston Chronicle through 8 decertification elections and did the same for Media General with 17 unions from 1999 to 2007. He's a regular contributor to SNPA publications, offering advice and summarizing the implications of the latest case law.
A graduate of the University of Cincinnati and Vanderbilt Law School, Zinser's early newspaper experience consisted of having high school sports stories occasionally picked up by a local Cincinnati paper, and spending Friday nights working in the pressroom of the Western Hills Press while working his way through college. Once out of law school, he was introduced to newspaper employment issues at the first law firm he worked for. He founded The Zinser Law Firm in 1989.
Among the most important is a 2005 case involving the St. Joseph News-Press in Missouri. "That's the current leading precedent on the National Labor Relations Act that ruled newspaper carriers are independent contractors and not eligible to form a union," Zinser said.
Although the newspaper initially lost before an administrative law judge, Zinser said the ruling was reversed on an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board.
If carriers or freelancers are considered employees, there are implications for workers compensation, unemployment compensation and tort law, he said. The Zinser firm has represented newspapers in 40 states on those issues.
"Another big issue is whether or not employees should be able to use the employer's email system for union organizing purposes," Zinser said. In 2007 the firm represented The Register-Guard of Eugene, Ore., in rare oral argument before the NLRB, which had not scheduled oral arguments since 1999.
Many news organizations filed briefs in support of the Register-Guard, while labor organizations filed for the other side. The ruling was that company email is the property of employers. "That was a huge, huge case," Zinser said.
More recently, Zinser represented the Santa Barbara News-Press in California in a contentious case involving reporters and the Teamsters Union. At issue was who controlled the content of the paper – the reporters who covered the news and wrote the stories, or the owners. Zinser said eight reporters were discharged, six of them for publicly encouraging people to cancel their subscriptions while working and getting a paycheck from the employer.
Again, the first ruling went against the newspaper ownership, but in late 2012 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit went the other way. "The First Amendment affords a publisher – not a reporter – absolute authority to shape a newspaper's content," the court ruled.
None of the fired reporters were returned to work.
"I've been practicing law since 1975 and I've represented newspapers the entire time," Zinser said. "And I've never had a case where the union was trying to take over the content of the paper.
"It was just very unusual. That was a very important case for the entire industry."
Obviously, Zinser doesn't consider newspapers to be a dying industry.
"The newspaper industry, I think, is a very important part of our society. I think the fact that the Founders chose to put the freedom of the press in the very first amendment to the Constitution gives me an idea of what they thought about it way back then."
"It has been a lot of fun representing newspaper people. They're entrepreneurial. They're in the information business. They're really in the vanguard of the First Amendment out there."
Jane Nicholes is a freelance writer and editor based in Daphne, Ala., and a former editorial writer for the Press-Register in Mobile. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.