HuffPo, AOL Face Class-Action Lawsuit

Do unpaid bloggers have a case? Or, even, your empathy?

Upon the sale of The Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million in February, CJR’s Lauren Kirchner recalled that AOL settled a 1999 class-action lawsuit with unpaid “volunteers” for $15 million, and she pondered whether “a similar case [could] be brought against the AOL/Huffington Post behemoth, today, by the thousands of unpaid Huffington Post bloggers.”

This morning came the news that Jonathan Tasini, formerly one of HuffPo’s unpaid bloggers, has filed a $105 million class-action lawsuit against The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, Ken Lerer, and AOL. (Disclosure: Lerer is a member of CJR’s board of overseers.) Tasini’s resume includes stints as head of the National Writers Union, a Democratic candidate for Congress, and, as Paul Farhi reminds us, a successful class-action plaintiff who won an $18 million settlement from publishers who digitally archived freelancers’ work without permission.

Early reactions to today’s suit include: “ludicrous publicity stunt” (’s Scott Rosenberg) and “$105 million is an absurd number that will do nothing but grab headlines” (Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan).

Also headline-grabbing: Tasini’s fightin’ words during a conference call this morning with reporters, words that included “slaves,” “Wal-Marts,” and “Lloyd Blankfein,” and a promise to “make Huffington a pariah in the progressive community” (see Jeff Bercovici for more, as well as for a response from a HuffPo spokesperson calling the suit “wholly without merit.”)

More background from Bercovici:

Jesse Strauss, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the suit is based on a claim of unjust enrichment. “The legal theory we’re going on is one based in common law,” he said. “This is not a statutory claim….This is not a contract claim.”

In other words, the fact that the vast majority of Huffington Post’s 9,000 bloggers signed on without any expectation of direct monetary gain is irrelevant to this claim. “Rather, it’s the value contributed to the Huffington Post, which is very much amenable to class treatment,” says Strauss….

“This lawsuit is about establishing justice for the bloggers of the Huffington Post and establishing a standard going forward,” [Tasini] says. “If we want to have a society that has a diverse, vibrant culture, we have to make sure the people that create the content, whether it be words, images, drawings, photographs - those people have to be compensated fairly.”

What say you? Do Tasini et al have a case? Do they have, even, your empathy? Or not?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.