A Hinds County Circuit Court judge has denied state auditor Shad White’s motion to dismiss a libel suit brought by University of Mississippi Professor James Thomas.
In his January 2021 petition, White alleged he could not be sued for defamation over allegations he made that Thomas, by participating in a two-day event called “Scholar Strike”, violated the law. of the state prohibiting public employees from striking.
White argued that as an executive officer of the state, he was entitled to a legal doctrine known as “absolute immunity” – complete protection from liability for acts committed in the exercise of his official duties – although he acknowledged that no Mississippi court had considered the matter. .
Judge E. Faye Peterson was unconvinced, writing that Mississippi law is clear state officials have “no absolute privilege for all comments”, only those made during legislative proceedings, judicial and military.
“Therefore, Shad White is not entitled to absolute immunity for any statements he makes as an official of the state government,” Peterson wrote in a Sept. 2 order. “This general theory of immunity has not been recognized by our courts, nor is it consistent with the laws of this state.”
Peterson added that “to the continuing detriment” of White’s defense, the Mississippi courts found that the immunity did not extend “to fraud, malice, libel, slander, libel or any criminal offence”.
Peterson has declined to issue declaratory relief at this time on whether or not Thomas’ participation in the academic strike violated state law — a key argument in his defamation case.
Fletcher Freeman, a spokesman for the state auditor’s office, said White and his attorney from the Mississippi attorney general’s office “will continue to defend this matter.”
“Auditor White has every right to tell people when they’re spending money, which is the subject of Thomas’ lawsuit,” Freeman wrote in an email.
The lawsuit, filed in December 2020, relates to White’s claims that Thomas participated in an “unlawful” work stoppage on September 8 and 9, 2020, and thereby violated state law. White sent Thomas a letter demanding that he repay $1,912—his salary and interest—for the two days and another letter asking the chancellor of the University of Mississippi to consider termination.
READ MORE: Auditor Shad White says a professor broke state law. The professor is now suing White for defamation.
Thomas’ original complaint alleged that it was defamation in part because it was wrong on White’s part to claim that the academics’ strike was illegal.
According to the state code, a strike is an action taken “for the purpose of inducing, influencing, or coercing a change in the conditions, remuneration, rights, privileges, or obligations of public employment “.
Thomas’ participation in the Scholar Strike was intended to highlight racism and injustice in the United States, not to change his working conditions, according to the original complaint.
“Shad White falsely asserted that Professor Thomas violated the law against public employee strikes when it was clear to anyone who could read that he had not,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney at the Mississippi Center. for Justice representing Thomas.
White’s motion to dismiss argued that a declaratory judgment would be inappropriate as “there are no ongoing legal relationships between the parties to be clarified or settled”. Furthermore, it would set a precedent against the orderly and efficient disposition of auditors’ requests.
“This will effectively create a need for expedited review (and potential defence) by the Attorney General of all Auditor’s claims referred for non-payment, whether or not the Attorney General has ultimately chosen not to pursue a given claim – a inefficient use of state resources,” the motion reads.
Thomas’ lawsuit does not seek a set amount of damages and says a jury should decide whether White is found liable.
“If the jury says he should pay a dollar, that’s fine,” the lawsuit reads. “If the jury orders more money, that’s fine too.”