Former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant sues media outlet Mississippi Today for defamation. Bryant plainly feels aggrieved and has decided not to take it lying down.
While Mississippi’s current crop of political leaders went on the offensive from behind the podium at the Neshoba County Fair, a veteran leader took his offensive to court. On Wednesday, former Governor Phil Bryant sued Mississippi Today’s parent company, Deep South Today, along with its Chief Executive Officer, Mary Margaret White, for defamation in Madison County Circuit Court.
In May, Bryant issued a notice of intent to sue Mississippi Today stemming from comments made by White at a conference put on by the Knight Foundation. From the stage of that gathering, White said Mississippi Today was the newsroom responsible for breaking the story of how a former governor embezzled $77 million in welfare funds.
Under Mississippi law, a person or entity accused of defamation must be provided with notice and an opportunity to issue an apology and correction.
On May 17, White published a note saying she “misspoke” at the Knight Foundation conference and that her comments were “inappropriate.” The video footage of her comments have since been removed from the internet by the Knight Foundation, with a note that indicates its removal was due to an “inaccurate remark.”
Someone who has defamed another person can avoid potential punitive damages and attorneys fees in a defamation suit by issuing an apology and acknowledging the error.
Earlier this week, Bryant issued another notice of intent to sue letter based on a different set of allegedly defamatory statements stemming from Mississippi Today’s marketing of investigative reporter Anna Wolfe’s Pulitzer winning ‘The Backchannel’ series.
Among the statements identified by Bryant is one that accused Bryant of misusing and squandering $77 million in welfare funds and another that accused him of steering millions of those dollars to family and friends. Bryant denies and asserts that there is no evidence to support these claims.
Rather than wait ten days to see how Mississippi Today responds to the second notice of intent to sue letter, the former Governor’s lawsuit contains reference to the alleged defamatory statements identified in both the May letter and the letter served earlier this week. The suit calls White’s May comments that she “misspoke” a “non-apology apology” and alleges that no one at Mississippi Today ever contacted Bryant to discuss a correction and retraction.
Much idle speculation occurred when Bryant sent the May letter that it was a bluff. His lawsuit, filed by attorney Billy Quinn, makes abundantly clear that it was not. Bryant plainly feels aggrieved and has decided not to take it lying down.
The suit, however, creates real risk for both parties. Truth is an absolute defense to defamation and Bryant will now be potentially open to discovery attempting to establish that the alleged defamatory statements are true. At least with respect to White’s comments on embezzlement, discovery might be limited since she’s acknowledged she misspoke and those comments were inappropriate.
Bryant may feel like everything pertaining to him is already public information since his emails and texts have already been made public, but the crucible of a civil suit carries with it the risk that some piece of evidence turns a prosecutor’s eyes toward the case. Up until now, he’s not been the subject of any real investigation and has not been charged with any crime.
There are obvious and not so obvious risks to Mississippi Today, as well. Bryant will get to conduct discovery on them. As part of his burden of establishing that they knew their claims were false or that they acted with reckless indifference as to the claims’ veracity, he will most likely be able to identify the sources for Wolfe’s reporting, see all of the texts and emails the outlet chose not to report and gain context for what they have chosen to report, and examine internal communications, including staff texts, emails, and correspondence.
The obvious risk to Mississippi Today is monetary. Bryant is a former governor with a consulting firm. Those firms tend to have high earning capacity. If he can establish the elements of his case and damage to his reputation that impacted the firm’s bottom line, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that damages could be in the millions.
There will be a legal fight over whether White’s May statement sufficed as an apology and cuts off punitive damages and attorney’s fees over the “embezzled” comment, and another over the timing of the suit within ten days of issuing the second notice of intent to sue letter this week.
In some ways, the risk of a big monetary settlement or verdict is mitigated by the almost certain existence of E&O and libel insurance coverage for these types of claims. That coverage comes with its own strings in terms of how cases get defended (I say this as someone who spent ten years defending insured claims).
The larger, perhaps less obvious risk for Mississippi Today is one to their credibility, or even the tax status, of the organization, were discovery to reveal cherry picking of facts to construct a false narrative, direct evidence of concerted targeting of Bryant, or a form of disallowed coordination with government officials, candidates, or political parties. A litigation hold is likely now in place on all internal documents and communications.
Ultimately, Bryant has an uphill path because he is a public figure and the standard of proof for public figure defamation cases is notoriously difficult to satisfy. One thing is now clear: Bryant was not bluffing.
Bryant’s filing against Mississippi Today is shown below.