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Washington Post Guild defends reporter placed on leave after tweet about rape allegation against Kobe Bryant

The Washington Post Guild on Monday came out in defense of Felicia Sonmez, a Post reporter who was placed on administrative leave after tweeting about the rape allegation against the late Kobe Bryant.

"We write to share our alarm and dismay that our newsroom leaders have chosen to place Felicia Sonmez on leave over a social media post, and to urge The Post to take immediate steps to ensure the safety of our colleague," the Guild wrote in a statement.

The controversy began Sunday, after news broke that NBA legend Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. As the world reacted on Twitter, Sonmez tweeted a 2016 article from the Daily Beast titled, "Kobe Bryant's Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser's Story, and the Half-Confession."

The article detailed a hotel worker's allegation that Bryant raped her on June 30, 2003. The case never made it to trial, as Bryant's accuser decided not to testify. But she settled with the NBA star in a civil complaint, and Bryant issued an apology.

The national political reporter's tweet sparked vicious backlash.

In a subsequent tweet, Sonmez wrote, "To the 10,000 people (literally) who have commented and emailed me with abuse and death threats, please take a moment and read the story — which was written 3+ years ago, and not by me. Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling."

Her tweets regarding Bryant have since been deleted — but they were captured in screenshots by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple, who harshly criticized the Post in his own recap of the controversy, titled "The Post's misguided suspension of Felicia Sonmez over Kobe Bryant tweets." 

Sonmez did not respond to CBS News' request for comment; but she told Wemple once the online backlash intensified, she emailed managing editor Tracy Grant and her editor Peter Wallsten about the threats she'd received. She said Grant asked her to take down the tweets, which she said she was slow to do because someone had posted her address online.

After checking into a hotel for the night, she told Wemple, she was informed via phone call with Grant that she had been suspended.

"Instead of protecting and supporting a reporter in the face of abuse, The Post placed her on administrative leave while newsroom leaders review whether she violated the social media policy," the Guild wrote. "Felicia had to leave her home out of fear for her safety and has gotten insufficient guidance from the Post on how to protect herself."

"We understand the hours after Bryant's death Sunday were a fraught time to share reporting about past accusations of sexual assault," the Guild added. "The loss of such a beloved figure, and of so many other lives, is a tragedy. But we believe it is our responsibility as a news organization to tell the public the whole truth as we know it — about figures and institutions both popular and unpopular, at moments timely and untimely."

The Washington Post told CBS News in a statement that "National political reporter Felicia Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom's social media policy. The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues."

But the Guild slammed what it called an "arbitrary and over-broad social media policy" and demanded that she be able to return to work.

"We have repeatedly seen colleagues — including members of management — share contentious opinions on social media platforms without sanction," the Guild wrote. "But here a valued colleague is being censured for making a statement of fact. Felicia did nothing more than what The Post's own news stories have done when she shared an article about the past allegation against Bryant."

"We urge The Post to immediately provide Felicia with a security detail and take whatever other steps are necessary to ensure her safety, as it has done in the past when other reporters were subject to threats," the Guild added. "The company should issue a statement condemning abuse of its reporters, allow Felicia to return to work, rescind whatever sanctions have been imposed and provide her with any resources she may request as she navigates this traumatic experience."

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