Testimonies in a 2009 case of a former television anchor, who has sued a Fox News affiliate for discrimination over a racial epithet that got him fired, began to be heard in a Philadelphia court Tuesday. Tom Burlington, who is white, claims he lost his job at the network because of a 2007 incident where he used the N-word in an office discussion instead of the hyphenated version.
Burlington claims he was unable to find a new job because of the publicity surrounding his dismissal, and is seeking unspecified damages. A court filing claims his losses in past and future earnings add up to nearly $3 million. The case revolves around a discussion at WTXF-TV, a local Fox News affiliate in Philadelphia, about a ceremonial “burial” of the word organized by a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
"Does that mean we can finally say the word 'N-----?'" Burlington reportedly asked at the meeting, according to court documents, cited by the Associated Press. Participants in the burial event allegedly used the full-form of the word repeatedly.
Several of Burlington’s colleagues, including co-anchor Joyce Evans, who is black, took offense, according to the judge’s findings. The news broadcast on the event also did not use the word, and Burlington later apologized to a co-worker, according to court documents.
"Evans encouraged other co-workers to complain to management ..., even urging a white co-worker to do so because '(t)he only people who have complained so far have been black people,'” U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick wrote last year, quoting testimony from an unnamed white employee.
Burlington’s defense attorney pointed out that several other publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News, used the uncensored version of the word in their reports on the NAACP event, according to Philly.com.
His defense also claimed that former WTXF anchor David Huddleston, who is black, used the word in a meeting to describe a criminal defendant and suffered no consequences as a result. Fox29’s attorneys reportedly tried to block Huddleston’s incident from being brought up in the trial, but Surrick overruled the motion.
"Huddleston's comments were arguably more offensive than Plaintiff's, and yet his coworkers simply laughed and did not report them to management," Surrick wrote, in a May memo. "A jury should be allowed to assess whether Plaintiff's race accounts for the difference."
Evans took the stand Tuesday and denied the allegations in the testimony. She said the issue had become emotionally heated within the TV station in the following week, because it concerned "a little more than a journalistic debate about what to say on television. It turned into a little something more than that, I think," she said, according to the AP.
Burlington, who had joined the station in 2004, was paid $90,000 for the time remaining on his employment contract, and former WTXF general manager Mike Renda testified that the network's decision to fire Burlington did not stem from this particular incident alone.
"It was the continual insensitivity that Tom showed," Renda said, according to the AP, alleging that Burlington continued to use the word several more times, including in his apology to his black colleagues. "He continued not to get it," he added.
The lawsuit against the network was filed in 2009, but has been delayed for years while the Supreme Court established a legal theory in a parallel case. Surrick ruled that the case could go to trial in October.
"Management was clearly aware that plaintiff's actions were being judged in light of the social norm that it is acceptable for African-Americans to use the word, but not whites. Deposition testimony suggests that some supervisors even subscribed to this view themselves," he wrote, in his decision.
The jury hearing the trial is all white. And Burlington reportedly insisted in his statements at the trial’s opening on Monday that he had never used the word maliciously, and tearfully described his difficulties in starting a new career in real estate from scratch.
“The hardest part is my children. My biggest fear is that they’ll find accounts of it on the Internet,” he said, according to Philly.com. “They’ll believe I’m a racist,” he said. “They’ll never see me as a journalist.”