Photo courtesy iStock: eccolo74
By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A tenured professor at the University of Mississippi filed a lawsuit Dec. 30 saying that state auditor defamed him by saying the professor should be fired for participating in a two-day "scholar strike."
Sociology professor James Thomas said the Sept. 8-9 event was part of a national effort to draw attention to racism and injustice. Auditor Shad White has accused Thomas of violating state law by taking part in a work stoppage.
White, a Republican, has said Thomas did not teach or respond to email from students during those days, causing tuition-paying students and taxpayers to suffer a loss. On Dec. 1, White demanded $1,912 from the professor. More than half of White's demand is for the professor to pay the auditor's investigative costs and interest.
Attorneys from the Mississippi Center for Justice, representing Thomas, filed the lawsuit in state circuit court. They wrote that Thomas provided lesson plans in advance and that the professor answered students' email before and after the two days.
"Dr. Thomas earned his salary the week of September 7, 2020, as he did every week during the academic year," his lawsuit said. The lawsuit specifies that the professor is not seeking any public money if a jury finds in his favor. It requests that White pay any judgment out of his own pocket.
"By claiming that Dr. Thomas violated a law that carries a punishment of termination, Mr. White indicated that Dr. Thomas was unfit to remain in his job," the lawsuit said. "Mr. White's statements constitute defamation for which he is liable under the law."
White issued a brief statement after the suit was filed. "The lawsuit is not worth the paper it's written on," he said.
Professors and others halted their classes and other duties during the protest to call attention to such issues as mass incarceration. Organizers said the event was inspired by pro football player Colin Kaepernick and players from the NBA and WNBA who have brought attention to police shootings and "racialized violence."
In a Sept. 14 letter to University of Mississippi Chancellor Glenn Boyce, White said the university should recover money it paid Thomas for those days of work and should go to court to try to remove him from his job. Thomas was granted tenure in 2019, which gives him additional job security.
Mississippi law bans public employees from striking. Thomas's lawsuit repeats what one of his attorneys has said since September: Thomas was not trying to change his own work conditions or increase his own pay — two elements required to define participation in a strike.
White was appointed state auditor in July 2018 by then-Gov. Phil Bryant, a fellow Republican. After Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2018, Thomas came under broad criticism from conservatives after the professor said on Twitter that people should disrupt U.S. senators' meals. "They don't deserve your civility," Thomas wrote.
At the time, Bryant criticized Thomas. "There is no place in a civilized society, and particularly on a college campus, for urging individuals to harass anyone," Bryant wrote on Twitter.