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Professor Sues Mississippi Auditor for Defamation Over Anti-Racism Strike Investigation

Auditor Shad White in front of a Revolutionary American flag
The Mississippi Center for Justice is suing Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, seen here, on behalf of University of Mississippi Professor James Thomas, accusing him of "defamation" for saying Thomas violated the state's anti-strike law for educators. Photo courtesy Auditor Shad White

The Mississippi Center for Justice filed a lawsuit today against Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, a Republican, for defamation on behalf of a sociology professor whom White’s office investigated for participating in the anti-racism “#ScholarStrike.” 

“In an attack on James M. Thomas, a faculty member and teacher at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State Auditor Shad White falsely accused Dr. Thomas of violating Mississippi’s law prohibiting certain public employee strikes and called on the University to terminate his employment as a result,” reads the lawsuit, which MCJ filed today in a Hinds County circuit court.

After Mississippi public-school teachers went on strike for a pay raise in 1985, the Mississippi Legislature granted educators a $4,400 pay raise while also passing a law making it illegal for educators at public institutions to participate in future strikes “for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.” 

Under the law, teachers who participate in such strikes must be fired and can be fined up to $20,000 a day.

‘Unfortunately, Mr. White Did Ignore the Law’

Auditor White first alleged Thomas had violated the law in a Sept. 14 letter to UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce in which he urged him to terminate the sociology professor’s employment. Two days later, on Sept. 16, White explained his decision on social media.

“It is my job to ensure no public money is illegally spent. Strikes and work stoppages are illegal in Mississippi. He can’t be paid for work he didn’t do,” White wrote. “The penalty for striking is termination. The law is the law. He is not above it.”

In today’s Hinds County lawsuit, MCJ attorneys Rob McDuff and Paloma Wu cited that post, in which White also said, “If you want someone who will ignore the law, go find someone else to be State Auditor.”

“Unfortunately, Mr. White did ignore the law, apparently because the key provision contradicted his false narrative of Dr. Thomas as an illegal striker,” the MCJ attorneys wrote.

MCJ is suing White for defamation in his capacity as an individual, not as a public official.

State Auditor Shad White maintains that he has no choice under state law—James Thomas (pictured) violated state law against strikes and faces termination. But other professors say the government and a public university are targeting a tenured professor’s academic freedom and freedom of speech for participating in a teach-in about racism and injustice at a university still struggling with a racist past. Photo courtesy James Thomas

“Shad White’s false statements that Dr. James Thomas violated Mississippi’s no-strike law …   were made with actual malice and constitute defamation per se,” the lawsuit says. “Accordingly, Mr. White, in his individual capacity, should be held liable for defamation and should be required to pay whatever amount the jury assesses in damages. This amount should not be paid by the taxpayers of Mississippi.”

Thomas, who taught classes remotely this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, participated in the two-day #ScholarStrike, which took place on Sept. 8-9, a Tuesday and Wednesday. Before he did so, though, the lawsuit says, he informed his students about the strike and why he was joining professors across the country in taking part.

“The Auditor’s letter claimed that ‘[s]trikes are illegal in Mississippi’ and ‘[t]he University should … proceed to court’ to seek Professor Thomas’s termination, which is the penalty for violating the law,” the MCJ lawsuit says. “Despite quoting several portions of the law, the Auditor studiously avoided quoting the key provision defining an illegal ‘strike’ as one taken ‘for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.’

“It was clear that Dr. Thomas did not join the #ScholarStrike to change his working conditions or increase his compensation. Instead, he did it as part of the national effort to highlight and combat racism and injustice. His actions plainly did not violate the law.”

White: ‘I’m Your Huckleberry’

Thomas’ left-wing views have made him a target of Republican and conservative critics in the state since 2018, when his tweet about then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh offended prominent conservatives across the country. The sociologist’s views on systemic racism have also made him a target.

In this publication’s August 2020 UM Emails exposé series, the Mississippi Free Press reported on wealthy conservative donors to the University of Mississippi who had pushed, unsuccessfully, for Thomas’ firing and denial of tenure in the fall of 2018. 

Many also raged at then-UM Chancellor Jeffery Vitter for not punishing Thomas, among other things, and called for his removal as chancellor. Under pressure, Vitter stepped down within weeks; Boyce replaced him in 2019.

After White sent his letter to Boyce in September, the chancellor agreed to turn over Thomas’ class materials, including lesson plans, discussion boards and the class roster. After a months-long investigation, White sent a letter to Thomas on Dec. 1 demanding payment of $1,912.42 within 30 days; half of which he said was for investigation costs, the other half for the days Thomas was on strike.

In a tweet the next day, on Dec. 2, the state auditor swiped at liberal critics and used their anger over the investigation to bolster his conservative bonafides.

“If you were looking for someone who will roll over in the face of the woke mob, I’m not the one. If you were looking for someone who will fight, I’m your Huckleberry,” he wrote, expressing the last through words in gif form.

The “woke mob” is a term right-wing talk show hosts often use to malign critics of systemic oppression and racial injustice.

“Imagine you told your boss you weren’t working, that you would not respond to her calls or emails, you would skip all meetings, & this is a ‘work stoppage,’ but you will be home thinking, so you still want to be paid,” White tweeted on Dec. 2. “Only a tenured professor could think this is ok. (It’s not)”

On Dec. 3, as Christian Middleton reported in this publication, the state auditor appeared on Paul Gallo’s right-wing radio talk show and participated in derisive dialogue about both Thomas and McDuff, while not discussing the language of the statute he accuses Thomas of violating.

‘Dr. Thomas Earned His Salary’

MCJ’s lawsuit today pushes back against the auditor’s claim that Thomas evaded his duties when he took part in the #ScholarStrike protest.

“Due to this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, (Thomas) taught his fall 2020 classes remotely as permitted by the University. Because of the varied scheduling challenges that the pandemic poses for many students, Dr. Thomas did not schedule mandatory online class times but spent considerable time preparing and providing students in advance with weekly lesson plans that consisted of a combination of readings, videos of his own lectures that he had recorded for the classes, videos of other lectures, other multimedia assignments, and discussion board participation,” the lawsuit says. 

“The plans allowed students to work in a way that made the most sense for them in light of their individual schedules as long as they finished the work by the end of the week.”

On Dec. 1, White claimed on social media that “Prof. Thomas ignored every email from his students” on Sept. 8 and 9, including one student who “was worried about responding to a writing prompt” and ones who “couldn’t access a lesson online” or “submit an assignment.”

But the lawsuit says Thomas “was available most of the time to meet with students by video to discuss the subject and the materials” and that, ahead of the two-day strike, he responded to students the prior weekend and on Sept. 7, the Labor Day holiday.

Famed Jackson Attorney Rob McDuff (right), pictured with former client Curtis Flowers, says James Thomas does not owe the State of Mississippi any money. Courtesy Mississippi Center for Justice

“Although he did not hold video conferences or respond to emails September 8-9, he did so on Thursday and Friday of that week,” the lawsuit says. “Prior to September 8, he explained the #ScholarStrike to the students in an email, provided them links to materials related to the event and its subject matter, and informed them in advance that he would not be responding to emails during those two days.”

Thomas, the lawsuit says, “ended up finishing work during those two days on a scholarly manuscript that he also had worked on the prior weekend and the Labor Day holiday,” the lawsuit says.

“All in all, Dr. Thomas earned his salary that week as he does every week.”

Thomas, like other university teachers and state executive officials, are salaried employees, and do not earn their pay by the hour.

“In addition to the defamation claim, this lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment from the Court of what Mr. White refused to admit: that Dr. Thomas did not violate the no-strike law … and there is no ground to terminate or penalize Dr. Thomas for an alleged violation of the law,” the complaint says.

MCJ is suing the auditor both “in his individual capacity and in his official capacity for the purposes of the declaratory judgement request,” which, unlike the defamation claim filed against White in his individual capacity online, does not involve monetary damages.

On Dec. 8, the University of Mississippi Faculty Senate backed Thomas, saying in a resolution that his “participation in the ‘Scholar Strike’ in no way contradicts the full, faithful and proper performance of the duties of employment of a faculty member of the University.”

Last night, the UM Associated Student Body echoed the Faculty Senate with a resolution “calling upon the University of Mississippi to resist undue external influence and to support academic freedom and freedom of expression.” The ASB agreed that the Scholar Strike did not violate the law.

MCJ Accuses Auditor White of ‘Actual Malice’

The auditor, the MCJ lawsuit says, chose not to “limit his false claims about Dr. Thomas to University officials,” but instead “promoted and repeated it in an array of public statements, interviews, and social media posts.” White repeated his allegations against Thomas on the Paul Gallo radio show on Sept. 17 and again on a Sept. 22 Mississippi Today podcast.

“A person need not be a lawyer to read Mississippi Code § 37-9-75 and realize that it did not prohibit Dr. Thomas’s participation in the two-day event. But Mr. White actually is a lawyer and has no excuse for misleading the public about the law,” the MCJ lawsuit says. “Mr. White has publicly claimed that he read the statute before accusing Dr. Thomas of violating it and before asking that Dr. Thomas be fired from his job.”

If White made his accusations against Thomas “without reading that key provision of the statute, his accusation was stunningly irresponsible and was made in reckless disregard of the truth,” the lawsuit says.

“Either way, he acted with what is known in the law as ‘actual malice.’ By claiming that Dr. Thomas violated a law that carries a punishment of termination, Mr. White indicated that Dr. Thomas was unfit to remain in his job. Mr. White’s statements constitute defamation for which he is liable under law.”

White has not responded to a late Wednesday evening request for comment.

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