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Sixth Circuit Moots Memphis Journalist’s First Amendment Case

A photograph of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Wikimedia Commons

On April 30th, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s determination of mootness concerning a local journalist’s claims against the city of Memphis.

Wendi Thomas, a journalist and founder of the news organization MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism, sued the city of Memphis. She alleged, among other claims, a violation of her First Amendment rights after she was left off the city’s “Media Advisory List,” an email listserv used by Memphis officials to relay information about news briefings and events to members of the press. Thomas was previously on the email listserv, but claims she was removed in retribution for her coverage of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Shortly after Thomas filed suit, the city of Memphis got rid of the email listserv, electing instead to use the city’s website and social media accounts to communicate information to the press about briefings. Given the change in policy, U.S. District Court Judge John Fowlkes, Jr. found Thomas’s claims to be moot, and granted the city’s motion to dismiss the case.

After hearing oral arguments on April 27th, a three-judge panel from the Sixth Circuit unanimously affirmed the district court’s ruling, writing “there is simply nothing in the record that would indicate that the City is reasonably likely to re-implement the Media Advisory List and/or email listserv, much less that it would then fail to respond to Plaintiff’s requests to be included on those lists. Plaintiff’s general assertion that the City acted out of retaliatory animus against her is simply not a sufficient reason to assume that the City will revert back to a policy that, after internal deliberations, it has expressly disavowed and expressly prohibited from reenactment.”

The Sixth Circuit further noted that “although the somewhat suspicious timing of the City’s implementation of the new media relations policy—only 13 days after Plaintiff initiated this action—might otherwise raise concerns about whether the change was genuine, Sink’s [Chief Legal Officer of the city of Memphis] sworn testimony establishes that the City went through a formal, organized process, even if self-imposed.”

Additionally, the judicial panel emphasized that “…the possibility of the City’s reversion to the Media Advisory List is merely theoretical, and the theoretical possibility of reversion to an allegedly unconstitutional policy is simply not sufficient to warrant an exception to mootness in this case.”

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