AOL, Huffington to face class-action lawsuit over merger from freelancers

In an effort to prove that ridiculous hyperbole is not limited to Democrats in Congress, a former Huffington Post contributor has accused founder Arianna Huffington of turning bloggers into “modern day slaves” on her “plantation.” Jonathan Tasini filed a class-action lawsuit against Huffington and AOL, who bought the Huffington Post earlier this year for $315 million.  Tasini wants a third of that in damages on behalf of the unpaid contributors to the site:

“In my view, the Huffington Post’s bloggers have essentially been turned into modern-day slaves on Arianna Huffington’s plantation,” he said. “She wants to pocket the tens of millions of dollars she reaped from the hard work of those bloggers….This all could have been avoided had Arianna Huffington not acted like the Wal-Marts, the Waltons, Lloyd Blankfein, which is basically to say, ‘Go screw yourselves, this is my money.’”

In other words, it’s personal.

“We are going to make Arianna Huffington a pariah in the progressive community,” Tasini vowed. “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.”

Don’t be too quick to dismiss the claim, either.  As Forbes explains, Tasini won a case against the New York Times, although that was on a different issue; the Times had not compensated freelancers for publishing their work through electronic databases.  That case involved writers who had negotiated compensation for their work’s initial publication.  In this case, the writers never had an expectation of compensation.

That doesn’t matter, Tasini and his team argue in this case.  Instead, they will claim “unjust enrichment.”  Apparently, the argument will rely on “common law” to convince a court that people who voluntarily contributed their works for free to the website made Arianna rich, and somehow that’s unjust in a legal sense.  (It’s certainly arguable in a moral sense; more on that below.) Now that the contributions allowed Huffington to hit a big payday, Tasini argues that one-third of that value should be seized and given to people who didn’t ask for monetary compensation at all.

I won’t predict that the courts will deny Tasini’s argument, since courts routinely do strange things in lawsuits like this.  The idea that Huffington was a slave-driver on a plantation is not just ridiculous, but insulting to those who suffered from actual slavery, past and present.  No one forced writers and bloggers to publish for free at HuffPo.  The fact that so many contributed without pay means that they must have felt that other factors compensated for their effort, such as exposure, taking part in the community, or just the satisfaction of seeing their work on line.  They could just as easily have chosen not to contribute, a choice that actual slaves do not have.  These writers understood the terms of the relationship when it started, and could have ended it at any time if they were not satisfied with it.

Now Tasini wants to change the terms ex post facto to get a chunk of compensation never promised to him or his colleagues.  That runs a far greater moral and practical risk than Arianna’s arguable exploitation.  It assumes that people cannot comprehend for themselves the agreements into which they enter, a direction that would undermine the entire basis of contractual and non-contractual business relationships.  Huffington had every right, moral and legal, to rely on those agreements to explicit terms of publication, as did AOL in their purchase.  It’s ludicrous to claim a third of the sale value of an asset from which contributors waived compensation from the start.

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