Lawsuit filed by nonprofit journalist dismissed by court of appeals
On Sept. 16, 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee dismissed Wendi C. Thomas’s lawsuit against the City of Memphis and its mayor and communications officer.
Thomas, a journalist for the nonprofit news site MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, alleged in her lawsuit that sometime after Jan. 22, 2018, Thomas’ personal gmail address was dropped from Mayor Jim Strickland’s media advisory list without her knowledge. She also said the city officials ignored her repeated requests to be re-added.
According to court filings reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the district court dismissed Thomas’s claims as moot; the city had voluntarily changed its media relations policy so all advisories would be posted on the city’s website or social media profiles. Thomas appealed the ruling, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the decision on April 30, 2021.
“Despite [Thomas’s] speculation that the City might re-implement the Media Advisory List, there is nothing in the record that would suggest the City is likely to return to its old ways,” the decision said. “The City enacted a new media policy that not only resolved [Thomas’s] particularized grievances, but completely overhauled its media policy as to all media members.”
Thomas’s attorney, Paul McAdoo, a Tennessee-based attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in a statement to Courthouse News that though they were disappointed by the court’s decision, Thomas does have renewed access to the media advisories as a result of the suit.
“The court’s decision today provides some protection for Ms. Thomas and other journalists in Memphis because the court sent a clear signal that the city could face legal consequences if it reverts to its prior practice,” McAdoo said.
A journalist for a Memphis-based nonprofit news site sued the city and its mayor and communications officer on May 13, 2020, for removing her from the city’s media email list and ignoring her repeated requests to be re-added.
In 2017, Wendi C. Thomas, a veteran of The Commercial Appeal, Indianapolis Star, Tennessean, and the Charlotte Observer, founded MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit news site “focused on poverty, power and public policy — issues about which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cared deeply.”
Filed in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Tennessee, the lawsuit alleges that sometime after Jan. 22, 2018, Thomas’ personal gmail address was dropped from Mayor Jim Strickland’s media advisory list without her knowledge.
Thomas later realized she was no longer receiving the emails and began requesting to be added back to the list beginning in May 2019.
“Can you please confirm that the following email addresses have been added to any and all media advisory/distribution lists sent by any and all city departments?” she wrote on Oct. 29, 2019, in her second email requesting that her email account and two others for her publication be added to the list, according to an exhibit. This email, like all her other messages on the matter, received no reply, according to the complaint.
She also made these requests in person at a October 2019 event, and in voicemails and text messages the following month. On Jan. 14, 2020, she sent her seventh email requesting to be returned to the list.
When asked for comment, Thomas referred the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker to the website’s article about the lawsuit:
“I’m disappointed that it’s come to this, since the fix is so simple: Just treat me and MLK50 like you treat other journalists and news outlets,” Thomas wrote in the published statement.
Thomas’s attorney, Paul McAdoo, a Tennessee-based attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued in the lawsuit that the exclusion from the list interferes with Thomas’s ability to exercise her First Amendment rights.
“The exclusion of Ms. Thomas from the Media Advisory List substantially disrupts and interferes with her ability to gather news and report on the City and Mayor Strickland,” the complaint states.
Recently, Thomas’s exclusion from the email list has meant she has not been able to attend the city’s virtual COVID-19 briefings via Zoom.
The complaint alleges that Thomas was removed from the list due to her past coverage of the mayor and the city. When Thomas sought to interview Strickland in June 2017 about the one-year anniversary of a protest on Memphis’ Hernando De Soto Bridge, her request was denied.
In denying the request, Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer, wrote to her that she had “demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland,” according to the complaint.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, attorney McAdoo wrote two letters to the city’s chief legal officer, informing her of Thomas’s exclusion from the media advisory list and asking for this “infringing, discriminatory, and possibly retaliatory decision by the City” to be remedied.
“MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is doing important investigative reporting about issues affecting the residents of Memphis, and it is flatly unconstitutional for the city to disrupt and interfere with Ms. Thomas’s ability to gather and report the news because it doesn’t like the content of her reporting,” McAdoo said in a statement published by RCFP.
Through her lawsuit, Thomas is seeking to be added to the email distribution list, that “explicit and meaningful standards” for inclusion of a media organization or reporter on the list be established, and that her exclusion from the list be declared unconstitutional.
City spokesman Dan Springer did not return an emailed request for comment about the lawsuit, but told the Commercial Appeal that the city does not comment on ongoing legal matters.