Mayor Jim Strickland speaks at the April 5, 2018 ribbon-cutting ceremony for the I Am A Man Plaza in Downtown Memphis. Photo by Andrea Morales

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism’s editor and publisher sued the City of Memphis, its mayor and chief communications officer on Wednesday, alleging that they have violated her constitutional rights by refusing to add her to the city’s media advisory list.

The complaint, filed in federal court, names as defendants the city, Mayor Jim Strickland and chief communications officer Ursula Madden. Exclusion from the media advisory list, through which the city communicates with journalists, violates Wendi C. Thomas’ First, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights, the lawsuit states.

“It is flatly unconstitutional for the city to disrupt and interfere with Ms. Thomas’ ability to gather and report the news because it doesn’t like the content of her reporting,” said Paul McAdoo, the Tennessee staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Legal Initiative, who filed the suit on Thomas’ behalf.

“After multiple attempts to get the city and its officials to stop its retaliatory exclusion of Ms. Thomas from the media advisory list, she has been left with no choice but to ask a federal district court to enforce her rights under the First Amendment and Tennessee Constitution.”

The lawsuit came less than two weeks after McAdoo sent a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Jon P. McCalla, who is overseeing the city’s compliance with the 1978 Kendrick Consent Decree. The decree bars the police department from surveilling people in ways that could violate their right to freedom of speech. The May 4 letter, submitted during a public comment period on the city’s proposed modifications, alleges the city’s exclusion of Thomas is also a violation under the consent decree.

The City of Memphis has also refused to add Thomas and MLK50 to the media advisory list for the city-county joint coronavirus task force’s daily press conferences in which government officials address the COVID-19 pandemic and answer journalists’ questions.

“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,” said Thomas, who has been a full-time journalist for more than 25 years, including 11 years as assistant managing editor and metro columnist at The Commercial Appeal.

According to the lawsuit, Madden and Thomas corresponded in June 2017 as Thomas reported a story about the one-year anniversary of the bridge protest, in which hundreds of demonstrators gathered to protest police brutality, ultimately closing the Interstate 40 bridge for several hours.

In a June 27, 2017, email, Madden told Thomas that she had “demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland,” and denied Thomas an interview with the mayor.

Said Thomas: “It’s important to note that neither Mayor Strickland nor Ursula has ever contended that my reporting or MLK50’s reporting has been factually inaccurate.”

“No politician likes being the subject of critical coverage, but that comes with elected office. I would be abdicating my role as a journalist if I failed to hold local government, including the City of Memphis, accountable.”

She also lamented the cost to taxpayers. “Every hour that city attorneys spend responding to this complaint is government resources that would better be allocated elsewhere,” she said.

This is the second time Thomas has been the plaintiff in a lawsuit connected to news gathering: The first was a 2019 suit against Memphis Shelby Crime Commission filed by her and The Marshall Project, a national newsroom that covers criminal justice. They alleged that the secretive nonprofit, which advises local government officials on criminal justice issues, was acting like the functional equivalent of a government agency and as such, its records should be open to the public.

The February settlement of that suit led to an agreement that the commission will disclose some information about its donors and its operations — and she hopes a similar degree of transparency will come from the lawsuit against the city.

“If this lawsuit is successful, the city will have to state its policy for including journalists and outlets on its advisory lists, which is something they’ve failed to do so far,” Thomas said.

The suit asks for an injunction requiring the city to immediately add Thomas, MLK50 managing editor Deborah Douglas and MLK50 to its media advisory list; that the city devise and publish standards for including reporters and news organizations on the list; procedures to notify media members of their exclusion, and an appeals process. It also calls for the defendants to pay all associated costs of the lawsuit.

Madden did not immediately respond to requests for comment on behalf of herself, the mayor or the city.

Local and national journalists said they supported Thomas’ efforts.

“I consider Wendi to be a legitimate journalist. I certainly consider MLK50 to be a legitimate news organization,” said longtime Memphis journalist Otis Sanford, Hardin Chair of Excellence in Economic and Managerial Journalism at the University of Memphis and author of “From Boss Crump to King Willie: How Race Changed Memphis Politics.”

“And as a result of that, MLK50 should be included on any media list that the city, which is a public entity, sends out to disseminate public information. This is all about public disclosure,” said Sanford, who also addressed the issue during his commentary on News Local 24 News last week.

Journalism’s role is important and should not be trampled on, and it is particularly disturbing when it happens to an outlet focused on marginalized communities, according to Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

“One of the most important roles of journalism is to guard the public’s right to know about its government,” she said. “Communities of color, in particular, need news sources that tackle issues that directly affect them so they can act in their own interests.

“At a time when local news is under threat and legacy media outlets are being called out for failing to serve all communities accurately and authoritatively, local mission-driven platforms such as MLK50 provide critical news and information,” Richardson said. “To restrict MLK50 from the city’s media list potentially limits information for the very under-covered people and communities the news organization was created to serve.”

Thomas is a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, and her investigation in conjunction with ProPublica into the debt collection practices of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare earned the 2020 Selden Ring Award. The $50,000 prize, which has been awarded by the USC Annenberg School of Journalism for 31 years, honors investigative reporting that leads to direct results.

“The journalism of Wendi Thomas and MLK50 has had some of the greatest impact of any American reporting of the last few years,” said Dick Tofel, ProPublica’s president.

“As the son of a native Tennessean, I’m especially disappointed to see the mayor and other local leaders apparently seeking to duck Wendi’s questions and hamper her ability to report the news. It does them no credit, and the citizens of Memphis real harm.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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