January 1, 2021
Tenured University of Mississippi sociology professor James Thomas has formally responded to state auditor Shad White’s claim that he violated the state’s no-strike law. Thomas, represented by the Mississippi Center for Justice, is suing White for defamation. Good for him, and kudos to MCJ for taking up the case.
Here’s the story in a nutshell: Professor Thomas participated in the anti-racist “Scholar Strike” on September 8-9, personally standing up as one among hundreds, if not thousands, of faculty members across the country showing their support, albeit largely symbolically, for the George Floyd rebellion over police killings of black Americans.
State auditor White went after Thomas, investigating Thomas’ social media statements, email communications, and classroom materials concerning the action, and concluding that the action amounted to an unlawful strike by a public employee. Initially calling for the university to fire Thomas, White backed down his demands in early December to a $2000 settlement claim for work that Thomas allegedly did not perform during his 2-day work slowdown. Yet despite the seeming backpedaling, White has made numerous public statements that Thomas did in fact violate Mississippi’s public employee no-strike law. That insistence is the basis for the defamation lawsuit.
Now, there’s speculation that the outspokenly liberal, some would say confrontational, Thomas was on the state auditor’s radar already, and the “strike” offered an irresistible opportunity for Mississippi’s conservative political establishment to slap down a mouthy professor. I have no idea if there’s any truth to this conjecture, which is in any case secondary to at least two more important concerns.
First, mistaking what Professor Thomas did for an actual workers walkout (an inherently collective, not individual, action, aimed at an employer and not a social injustice) is a bit like calling a rambling series of personal social media musings a great novel. It’s absurd on its face.
Second, and most important, Thomas is a tenured professor, enjoying both the job protection that attends that status and the full rights of academic freedom that all members of the professoriate are entitled to. Any suggestion that a tenured professor can be fined, let alone fired, for speech or action that some find offensive is a threat not merely to the professoriate, but to the academic integrity of Mississippi’s institutions of higher education.
For that reason alone, this is very much a “good news” story that we can hope augurs well for the new year.