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Lawsuit asserts MS Auditor defamed Ole Miss professor

Weeks after State Auditor Shad White issued a demand letter to controversial Ole Miss sociology professor James Thomas for allegedly participating in a strike back in September, a lawsuit has been filed in Hinds County against the auditor on Thomas’ behalf. 

Filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice, the defamation suit seeks a “declaratory judgment from the Court that Dr. Thomas did not violate that law” after White argued that his participation in the September strike violated state law. 

“In an attack on James M. Thomas, a faculty member and teacher at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State Auditor Shad White falsely accused Dr. Thomas of violating Mississippi’s law prohibiting certain public employee strikes and called on the University to terminate his employment as a result. The false statement was made by Mr. White in a letter to the Chancellor of the University, in a subsequent letter to Dr. Thomas himself, in at least one press release, and in a number of interviews and other public statements.

This lawsuit is brought on behalf of Dr. Thomas. It seeks to hold Mr. White accountable under the law of defamation for this false statement. However, Dr. Thomas does not seek the payment of any taxpayer money. This defamation suit is brought against Mr. White in his individual capacity. If Mr. White is found to be liable for this false statement, the jury can decide whether he personally should pay any money. If the jury says he should pay one dollar, that is fine. If the jury orders payment of more money, that is fine too. But no taxpayer money will be paid to Dr. Thomas as a result of this lawsuit.” – MCJ Complaint

In response, the state auditor said, “the lawsuit is not worth the paper it’s written on.”

The demand letter issued by White’s office totaled nearly $2,000 with the auditor providing the following reasoning: 

“Today my office issued a demand for $1,912.42 ($946.74 principal and $965.68 interest and investigative costs) to Prof. James Thomas for his ‘work stoppage’ (his words) on September 8th and 9th. ‘Concerted work stoppages’ and strikes are illegal under Mississippi’s no-strike law, and paying someone for not working violates Sections 66 and 96 of the state constitution. It’s simple—the taxpayers of Mississippi cannot pay someone when they did not provide the good or service they were hired to provide.”

In this case, Prof. Thomas told the world on social media and his students in writing what he was doing:

‘I have strong feelings about this – if you have tenure, your #ScholarStrike activity needs to be a work stoppage. Tell your students you’re not working.’

Over two days Prof. Thomas ignored every single email from his students. My agents and I personally read each of those emails. One student was worried because they were having trouble responding to a writing prompt. Another could not access a lesson plan online. One student could not submit an assignment on time because of a technology problem and worried about getting full credit. Still, another was worried about an assignment and asked if Prof. Thomas would be responding while on Scholar Strike. There are others.

Prof. Thomas had three classes to teach on those two days, and he did not teach them. He also told his students,

‘I will not be responding to emails’ and

‘I will not be holding meetings via zoom, including office hours . . .’

In short, he refused to perform his job duties, and his tuition-paying students suffered as a result. The taxpayers and donors to the university suffered, too. When Prof. Thomas realized he was going to be called on the carpet for not performing these duties, he attempted to explain by saying, ‘100 percent of my job requires time spent thinking . . . . If I’m thinking I’m working.”

Thomas has been at the center of controversy several times due to his outspoken views shared on social media. Before being granted tenure by the IHL, Thomas encouraged the harassment of Republican Senators during the Kavanaugh hearings and compared teenage supports of President Trump to Hitler youths. 

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