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News outlet asks court to dismiss former Mississippi governor's defamation lawsuit

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A local news outlet that helped expose a wide-reaching public corruption scandal has filed its first defense against a defamation lawsuit brought by former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, with the news outlet arguing it engaged in constitutionally protected speech.

In Mississippi Today's first legal response since Bryant sued the outlet and its CEO in the Circuit Court of Madison County on July 26 for allegedly defaming him in public comments on the misspending of $77 million of federal welfare funds, attorney Henry Laird outlined on Friday 19 legal defenses against the former governor's claims.

The attorney also requested that the ex-governor's complaint be dismissed.

“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.”

In addition to free speech protections, Mississippi Today's legal defense is built around New York Times Co. v. Sullivan., a 1964 decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court greatly limited the ability of public officials to sue for defamation. It ruled that news outlets are protected against a libel judgment unless it can be proven that they published with “actual malice” — knowing that something was false or acting with a “reckless disregard” to whether or not it was true.

Bryant's July 26 lawsuit came just over two months after Mississippi Today and one of its reporters, Anna Wolfe, won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the misspending of welfare funds intended for poor Mississippians that were instead diverted to the rich and powerful.

Prosecutors have said the state’s human services department gave money to nonprofit organizations that spent it on projects such as a $5 million volleyball facility at the University of Southern Mississippi — a project for which retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre agreed to raise money.

Mississippi Auditor Shad White announced in February 2020 that criminal charges were brought against six people, including John Davis, a former Mississippi Department of Human Services executive director who had been chosen by Bryant. The announcement came weeks after Bryant, a Republican, finished his second and final term as governor. Davis and others have pleaded guilty.

Wolfe’s “The Backchannel” series shed light on the embezzlement scheme, winning a Pulitzer in May. An article published on Mississippi Today’s website announcing the honor said the outlet revealed how Bryant “used his office to steer the spending of millions of federal welfare dollars” to “benefit his family and friends.”

That announcement — and an earlier report Mississippi Today published on the impact of its coverage — are the two primary written communications Bryant says are defamatory. Also at the center of his lawsuit are comments White made at a journalism conference that, according to Bryant's attorney William Quin II, misrepresented Bryant’s connection to the squandered welfare dollars.

In a May 11 letter, Bryant said White made a “false and defamatory” statement about him when, at a journalism conference in February, she said Mississippi Today broke the story that Bryant “embezzled” welfare money. No criminal charges have been filed against Bryant, and he has said he told the auditor in 2019 about possible misspending of money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families antipoverty program.

Reached by phone Monday, Quin said Mississippi Today's response “speaks for itself” and declined to comment further.

In an amended complaint filed on Aug. 24, Quin listed nine unnamed clients from whom he claims Bryant lost almost $500,000 in business due to White's comments at the Knight Media Forum in February. Bryant joined a private consulting firm shortly after leaving public office.

Mississippi Today published an apology from White in May, a week after Bryant threatened a lawsuit, but his attorneys have said the apology wasn't specific enough.

Favre also has not been charged with a crime, but the Mississippi Department of Human Services, with a new director, filed a civil lawsuit last year against him, along with more than three dozen other people and businesses, to try to recover more than $20 million of the misspent welfare money.

Among the defendants in that civil suit is Nancy New, an ex-nonprofit head who pleaded guilty in April 2022 to state charges of misusing welfare money.

On Friday, the same day Mississippi Today filed its response to Bryant's lawsuit, New's attorneys, Gerald and Carroll Bufkin, filed a motion to quash a subpoena by the former governor. Bryant’s subpoena purports to seek documents relevant to his defamation suit, the Bufkins said.

But as a public figure, Bryant must prove that Mississippi Today and White acted with “actual malice” when they made their allegedly defamatory statements, they argued, referring to the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan legal standard. The former governor “has no legitimate basis” for believing his subpoena could uncover relevant information, they argued.

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Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.