The former Mississippi governor Phil Bryant has filed a defamation case against a local news organisation that helped disclose a significant public corruption scandal. The organisation has filed its initial defence, saying that it engaged in constitutionally protected speech.
Attorney Henry Laird outlined 19 legal defences against Bryant’s claims on Friday in Mississippi Today’s first legal response since the former governor sued the publication and its CEO in Madison County Circuit Court on July 26 for allegedly defaming him in statements made in public regarding the misuse of $77 million in federal welfare funds.
Additionally, the counsel asked that the ex-governor’s complaint be dropped.
“We will vigorously defend this case and ensure the people of Mississippi that the press will not be intimidated,” said Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White in a statement. “We stand for press freedom and will always uphold our mission of building a more informed Mississippi.”
Mississippi Today’s legal defence is based on New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a 1964 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court severely restricted the power of public officials to sue for defamation in addition to free speech provisions. Unless it can be demonstrated that news organisations published with “actual malice” — knowing that something was untrue or acting with a “reckless disregard” to whether it was true or not — it was decided that news organisations are shielded from libel judgements.
Just over two months had passed when Bryant filed his lawsuit on July 26. At that time, Mississippi Today and one of its reporters, Anna Wolfe, had just received the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the misuse of welfare payments meant for low-income Mississippians but instead given to the wealthy and powerful.
According to prosecutors, the state’s human services division distributed funds to charities that used them for initiatives like a $5 million volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi, for which Brett Favre, a former NFL quarterback, committed to collect money.
Criminal charges were filed against six individuals, including John Davis, a former executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services who had been picked by Bryant, according to a February 2020 announcement from Mississippi Auditor Shad White. The news was made a few weeks after Republican governor-elect Bryant completed his second and final term. Davis and others entered guilty pleas.
The “The Backchannel” series by Wolfe, which won a Pulitzer in May, provided information on the embezzlement plot. In a post announcing the award, Mississippi Today claimed that it had shown how Bryant had “used his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars” to “benefit his family and friends.”
The two main written communications Bryant claims are defamatory are that announcement and a report Mississippi Today issued earlier on the effects of its coverage. Bryant’s lawyer, William Quin II, claims that White’s remarks at a journalism conference distorted Bryant’s involvement with the wasted welfare funds and are therefore at the centre of his complaint.
Bryant said in a letter dated May 11 that White, who claimed Mississippi Today broke the report that Bryant “embezzled” welfare money in February at a media conference, made a “false and defamatory” remark against him. Bryant has stated that he informed the auditor in 2019 about the potential misuse of funds from the anti-poverty programme Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but no criminal charges have been brought against him.
When contacted by phone on Monday, Quin claimed the response from Mississippi Today “speaks for itself” and declined to make any more comments.
Quin mentioned nine unnamed clients in an additional complaint he filed on August 24. Quin contends that Bryant lost about $500,000 in business as a result of White’s remarks at the Knight Media Forum in February. Bryant started working for a private consulting company soon after leaving governmental service.
A week after Bryant threatened to file a lawsuit, Mississippi Today published a statement of regret from White in May. However, according to Bryant’s counsel, the statement of regret was insufficient.
Favre hasn’t been charged with a crime either, but the Mississippi Department of Human Services, under a new director, sued him and more than three dozen other individuals and companies last year in an effort to recoup more than $20 million in improperly spent welfare funds.
Nancy New, a former nonprofit executive who pleaded guilty in April 2022 to state charges of mishandling welfare funds, is one of the defendants in that civil lawsuit.
The move to revoke a subpoena issued by the former governor was submitted by Gerald and Carroll Bufkin on Friday, the same day Mississippi Today submitted its response to Bryant’s case. According to the Bufkins, Bryant’s subpoena claims to be seeking papers for his defamation lawsuit.
However, they contended, citing the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan legal standard, that as a public person, Bryant must demonstrate that Mississippi Today and White acted with “actual malice” when they published their allegedly defamatory claims. They claimed the former governor “has no legitimate basis” for thinking his subpoena could turn up important information.