The Huffington Post’s legion of unpaid freelancers is finally demanding their share of the website’s earnings. Forbes reported on Tuesday that a group of bloggers, led by labor activist and journalist Jonathan Tasini, plan to file a class-action lawsuit against HuffPo, its founder Arianna Huffinton, and the site’s owner AOL.
Tasini was a freelancer for HuffPo from December 2007 until the site’s sale to AOL this year, and he’s already more than experienced with this type of lawsuit: Back in 2001, he was the lead plaintiff in New York Times Co. v. Tasini, a suit in which Tasini and other writers claimed that newspapers didn’t have the right to license freelancers’ work in electronic databases like LexisNexis without permission or compensation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
Now, Tasini is planning an all-out takedown of the Huffington Post and its founder. In an interview with Forbes, Tasini castigated the website’s practices, comparing its bloggers to “modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation” and accusing her of acting like “the Wal-Marts, the Waltons, Lloyd Blankfein, which is basically to say, ‘Go screw yourselves, this is my money.’”
Things got even nastier as Tassini detailed his intent to completely destroy the media queen. “We are going to make Arianna Huffington a pariah in the progressive community,” he continued. “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.”
He also has some harsh words for HuffPo writers who continue to work for the website (although most of their 9000 unpaid bloggers signed onto the lawsuit): “Anybody blogging for the Huffington Post now is a scab. They’re a strike breaker. They’re producing content for somebody who is attacking workers.”
So what do the plaintiffs hope to get out of the suit? The point of the lawsuit, Tasini says, is to get justice for the Huffington bloggers and to make sure that creators of content in every field are compensated fairly for their work. According to attorney Jesse Strauss, the suit is based on a claim of “unjust enrichment”—not a contract or statutory claim. “Rather, it’s the value contributed to the Huffington Post, which is very much amenable to class treatment,” he told Forbes.
This value has a pretty big price tag: about $105 million, or one third of what AOL paid for The Huffington Post since blogging makes up one of the HuffPo's three divisions. (Although, according to the New York Times’ Nate Silver, bloggers are responsible for far less than a third of the site’s traffic.)
In response to the lawsuit, a Huffington Post spokesman offered this statement: “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.”