OXFORD, Miss.—Embattled University of Mississippi sociology professor James Thomas has obtained prominent Jackson attorney, Rob McDuff, as legal counsel. Mississippi State Auditor Shad White recently targeted Thomas, contending that the academic broke the law when participating in a teach-in event called Scholar Strike. Teacher strikes have been illegal since the successful one brought a pay raise to public-school teachers in Mississippi in 1985.
McDuff, who is the director of the Mississippi Center for Justice George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative, said today that the auditor is ignoring a key part of the law. “Despite quoting several portions of that law,” McDuff wrote in a statement provided to the Mississippi Free Press today, “the Auditor studiously avoided quoting the key provision stating that any work stoppage is a ‘strike’ only if it is ‘for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.’”
“Professor Thomas did not join the #ScholarStrike to change his working conditions or increase his compensation,” McDuff continued. “Instead he did it as part of the national effort to highlight and combat racism and injustice. His actions clearly did not violate this law.”
White has tweeted repeatedly about this case, but not about that part of the law, the statement pointed out. “Unfortunately, the Auditor, in this letter and in many public statements, interviews, and social media posts about Professor Thomas since, has failed even to mention this particular provision of the law. Instead, without justification, he has continued to claim that Professor Thomas’s actions were illegal under that law,” McDuff wrote.
As part of his investigation, White issued a subpoena to the University of Mississippi on Sept. 18 commanding the university to produce emails that Thomas sent from or received through his university email address. The subpoena, which the Mississippi Free Press found in the Lafayette County courthouse Wednesday, also demands Thomas’ 2020 class schedule, rosters from every class he is teaching during the fall 2020 semester, copies of all materials Thomas has uploaded to Blackboard for those courses, and any communications to or from Thomas via Blackboard.
Leaders at the University of Mississippi have remained silent on the matter, but several hundred academics across the U.S. have offered their support to Thomas. Despite auditor White’s assertion that James Thomas broke state law, the central issue in this case may be whether or not the statute applies to Thomas. The statute was written into law following wildcat strikes by Mississippi public school teachers who organized to secure pay raises in the early months of 1985.
McDuff is a well-known civil rights attorney who has argued four cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. McDuff was attorney for Mississippian, Curtis Flowers, who was tried an unprecedented six times for capital murder and spent 23 years behind bars for a Winona murder he did not committ.
“Because Professor Thomas plainly did not violate this law, there is no justification for the Auditor’s investigation and there never was one,” McDuff said today.