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Thomas v. City of Memphis

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  1. Local Legal Initiative

Case Number: 2:20-cv-02343

Court: U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee

Client: Wendi Thomas

Complaint Filed: May 13, 2020

Background: In May 2019, Wendi Thomas, the founder, editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, emailed the communications office of the city of Memphis to request that the city add the email addresses of Thomas and two other MLK50 staffers to the city’s media advisory list.

City officials, however, failed to comply — even after Thomas followed up her original email with multiple additional requests to be added to emails alerting members of the media about city events and actions.

In March and April 2020, Reporters Committee attorneys wrote letters to the city of Memphis on behalf of Thomas, arguing that the city’s refusal to add MLK50 to its media advisory list violated the news outlet’s rights under the First Amendment, Tennessee Constitution and the 1978 Kendrick Consent Decree, an order that prohibits the city from interfering with any person’s First Amendment rights. Reporters Committee attorneys then submitted a public comment on behalf of Thomas to the independent monitor responsible for administering the consent decree.

A week later, Reporters Committee attorneys filed a complaint alleging that the city, along with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Chief Communications Officer Ursula Madden, violated both the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions in repeatedly denying Thomas’s requests to add her email address to its media advisory list.

The lawsuit, which accuses the city of retaliating against Thomas for her coverage, asks the court to require the city to add Thomas to the media advisory list immediately. It also requests that the city publish explicit standards for including a reporter or news organization on its media advisory list and provide notice to any reporter or news organization prior to removing them from the list, along with an opportunity for that decision to be contested.

Quote: “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,” said Paul McAdoo, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Legal Initiative staff attorney based in Tennessee. “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.”

Update: On Sept. 16, 2020, the district court dismissed as moot Thomas’s claims against the city of Memphis because city officials voluntarily stopped using media advisory lists to disseminate information to the public. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling on April 30, 2021.

“While we are disappointed with the court’s decision, Ms. Thomas now has access to the media advisories as a result of this suit,” McAdoo said after the Sixth Circuit’s ruling. “And 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.”

Case Filings: 

2020-5-13: Complaint

2020-5-13: Exhibit A

2020-5-13: Exhibit B

2020-5-13: Exhibit C

2020-5-13: Exhibit D

2020-5-13: Exhibit E

2020-5-13: Exhibit F

2020-5-13: Exhibit G

2020-5-13: Exhibit H

2020-5-13: Exhibit I

2020-5-13: Exhibit J

2020-5-13: Exhibit K

2020-5-13: Exhibit L

2020-5-13: Exhibit M

2020-5-13: Exhibit N

2020-9-16: Order granting defendants’ motion to dismiss

2021-4-30: Sixth Circuit ruling

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