Former San Diego Union-Tribune editorial cartoonist Steve Kelley is suing the newspaper, accusing its higher-ups of pressuring his replacement to not work with him on a joint comic strip.

Attorneys for the U-T deny any wrongdoing and are asking a Superior Court judge to throw out the suit.

The U-T sacked Kelley in 2001 after his editors refused to run a submitted cartoon that showed what Kelley called “butt cracks.” Kelley went on to a job as editorial cartoonist at The (New Orleans) Times- Picayune.

In the lawsuit, scheduled to be considered at a February court hearing, Kelley said he reached an agreement with the U-T’s current editorial cartoonist, Steve Breen, to jointly create a newspaper comic strip called “Dustin.” The Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes comic strips, agreed to a development deal in 2006 with an eye toward releasing the strip in 2008.

Breen, who won a Pulitzer for his editorial cartoonist work, already draws a daily comic strip called “Grand Avenue.”

But the deal fell apart when Breen pulled out, according to the suit.

Kelley’s suit alleges that the U-T “applied undue pressure and coercion on him [Breen] … and caused him to believe that his job at the U-T would be in jeopardy should he continue his involvement with ‘Dustin.’”

“The same personnel who were instructive in Kelley’s termination from the San Diego Union-Tribune were still employed by the defendants and they did not want to see Breen partner with Kelley on the comic strip project,” the suit said.

The suit alleges that Breen was told that Kelley was “not loyal” and heard comments such as “What are you crazy?”

The suit doesn’t identify who made each of the alleged comments, but it does name publisher David Copley, editor Karin Winner, editorial page editor Bob Kittle and senior editor for opinion William Osborne.

Breen, according to the suit, told Kelley that the actions of the defendants were “boring a hole in the anxiety sector of [his] brain.”

Kelley alleges that the paper engaged in unfair competition. But in their response to Kelley’s suit, attorneys for the U-T write that “at worst, defendant’s actions were merely engaging in fair competition for the services of Breen.”


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