New York Post eyes shielding Murdoch talks over chimp cartoon

(Reuters) - The New York Post is seeking to keep its top editor from having to answer questions in a bias lawsuit about his discussions with media mogul Rupert Murdoch over a published cartoon that appeared to liken President Barack Obama to a chimpanzee.

CEO of News Corp Rupert Murdoch attends the Allen & Co Media Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho July 13, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Calling the February 2009 cartoon “quintessential political speech entitled to the strongest protections of the First Amendment,” the newspaper in a court filing late Friday night also said the discussions were irrelevant to the lawsuit brought by Sandra Guzman, a former associate editor.

In November 2009, Guzman, who is black and Puerto Rican, sued the Post, its editor Col Allan and its parent News Corp for alleged discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, gender and national origin, saying she had been fired in retaliation for complaints over inappropriate conduct.

She also claimed to have objected to the cartoon, which referred to the $787 billion federal economic stimulus and depicted a policeman shooting a crazed chimpanzee, a reference to an actual incident in Connecticut.

Many people thought the animal was meant to depict Obama, and Murdoch later apologized to readers.

In a June 29 order, Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis in Manhattan had ordered Allan, in a two-hour deposition, to answer questions, including over whether he told Murdoch he disagreed with publishing an apology, and whether he thought Murdoch believed it was a mistake to do so.

But in Friday’s filing, the defendants argued that the order would let Guzman breach “the heart of the editorial process,” and asked District Judge Barbara Jones to reverse it.

The defendants said the cartoon was intended to mock Congress’ drafting of stimulus legislation and made no reference to race. They also called Guzman’s request “nothing more than a fishing expedition that would invade and chill the editor’s and newspaper’s First Amendment rights to political expression.”

“We have maintained from the very beginning that the New York Post assertion of an editorial privilege was baseless,” Guzman’s lawyer Kenneth Thompson said in a phone interview on Sunday. “We now look forward to bringing Col Allan back to answer our questions.”

The case is Guzman v News Corp et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 09-09323.

Reporting By Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Gunna Dickson