Mississippi Today’s legal woes are a matter of national security

Published 10:15 am Wednesday, July 10, 2024

When I was in college, majoring in journalism at the University of Alabama, there was a time when Hustler magazine almost inspired me to go to law school. Yep. You read that right.

It was while I was taking a media law and regulation class, and we spent several weeks focusing on the First Amendment implications involved in the plot of the movie “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” If you aren’t familiar, the crux of the film’s relationship with the First Amendment is that Flynt, the infamously pornographic magazine’s founder and publisher, used it as a real-life defense against a number of obscenity charges. He also famously defended himself in a lawsuit claiming emotional distress brought by evangelist Jerry Falwell by asserting the First Amendment protected his right to parody advertisements.

In the film, Flynt – played by Woody Harrelson – says of his defense, “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, it will protect all of you.”

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Odd as it might seem, that same sentiment is being used today in our state by a nonprofit news organization facing a defamation lawsuit from one of our former governors. And while that may sound like a movie as well, it’s all too real for Mississippi Today. The organization is being sued for defamation by Phil Bryant over its Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on what most people now know as the Mississippi welfare scandal.

The newsroom’s reporting uncovered millions in misappropriated funds and Bryant found himself as a central subject of its investigation. Now, he is not only suing, but demanding documents, notes and sources’ names be turned over to the courts. 

So, how does this relate to Larry Flynt again? Well, first of all, he won his cases. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Flynt did not have “actual malice” in his parody advertisement that involved Falwell. Actual malice is a key component that must be proven in libel or defamation claims thanks to a 1964 case, The New York Times vs. Sullivan. In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said, in order to prove libel, a public official must show that what was said against him or her was made with actual malice – “that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.”

Back to Mississipp Today: The organization last month was ordered by a state court to turn over documents related to confidential sources for their reporting concerning Bryant. And you could argue that might uncover evidence that would go toward proving actual malice. Here’s the thing: In most states, journalists are given a certain amount of protection in the form of Shield Laws, providing them the safety needed to do their jobs and allowing the facts reported to speak for themselves. These laws are designed to keep reporters from being forced to disclose confidential sources and other information in court. Mississippi is one of only eight states without a Shield Law.

Mississippi Today is currently appealing that decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court. While they wait, Bryant filed a motion asking a judge to hold them in contempt of court, which would mean individual defendants – including Mississippi Today’s editor Adam Ganucheau and reporter Anna Wolfe – could be looking at jail time. If that happened, it would make them the first people related to the investigation they themselves began to see the inside of a cell. 

All of this raises a number of really serious concerns that could have implications for not just journalists in Mississippi, but all over the country. Those implications, I promise you, would spill over into the lives of the general public. One of the most important functions of a free press is to play the role of watchdog over those in power. Should the Mississippi Supreme Court – which, by the way, is a nine-judge panel made up of four Bryant appointees – rule that Mississippi Today does, in fact, have to turn over notes, sources’ names, and other documents, it will set a dangerous precedent in regard to a reporter’s privilege, which protects journalists and sources.  

Then there is the matter of reporters and news organizations being more open to defamation and libel suits. Simply going through the motions of fighting such a suit can be enough to financially decimate many small newsrooms and that often seems to be the goal of these lawsuits in the first place.

There’s a lot to unpack any time a situation like this arises, but in the case of Bryant’s suit against Mississippi Today, there are a lot of things we should all be paying very close attention to. It’s a lot like what Flynt said in the movie. And while I’m certainly not calling Mississippi Today scumbags, I am saying if the courts fail to provide protection under the First Amendment for them, it’s a slippery slope to a lack of protection for us all.

Blake Bell is the general manager and executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at blake.bell@vicksburgpost.com