Memphis news group alleges First Amendment violation over media advisory list blacklisting

Nonprofit online news organization MLK50 in Memphis has told a federal judge overseeing a consent decree against the city that the city has violated its journalists’ First Amendment rights and the court order by repeatedly refusing to add its editors to the city’s media advisory list.

The city of Memphis has refused to add MLK50 founder and editor Wendi Thomas to the media advisory list after taking her off in 2019. The city has complained she is not “objective” when it comes to her coverage of the mayor.

In a letter written on May 4, attorney Paul McAdoo told U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla that the city of Memphis has failed to comply with the Kendrick Consent Decree after it removed MLK50’s editor Wendi Thomas from the media advisory list in 2019 and repeatedly refused to reinstate her and her managing editor to the list.

The city has also refused to add MLK50 to the list of journalists with log-in information for the virtual press conferences being held by its Joint COVID-19 Task Force.

McAdoo pointed to the part of the order that said “the City of Memphis shall not disrupt, discredit, interfere with or otherwise harass any person exercising First Amendment right” and that “[t]he City of Memphis shall not engage in any action for the purpose of, or reasonably having the effect of deterring any person from exercising First Amendment rights.”

“The City has interfered with MLK50 and its journalists’ First Amendment rights and attempted to deter them from exercising their First Amendment rights by refusing to add them to the City’s media advisory lists,” wrote McAdoo, an attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. McAdoo is based in Tennessee as part of the organization’s Local Legal Initiative.

The Kendrick Consent Decree is a court order that arose out of a federal lawsuit over Memphis’ domestic intelligence unit that conducted extensive and secret surveillance of citizens in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1978, the court issued a decree forbidding the city’s use of electronic surveillance, infiltration, harassment, provocation, or any other actions that would deter individuals from exercising their First Amendment rights.

City complains journalist is not ‘objective’ when it comes to mayor

McAdoo wrote that “the City’s refusal is motivated by its perception that MLK50’s coverage of it is somehow unfair or ‘not objective.’ Such content- and viewpoint-based discrimination, however, runs afoul of the First Amendment… Not having the same access to information available to other members of the media whom the City has included on its media advisory list interferes with MLK50 and its journalists’ First Amendment rights and is done to deter their coverage of the City, both of which are violations of the Kendrick Consent Decree.”

In June 2017, the city’s chief communications officer, Ursula Madden, told Thomas in an email that she had “demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”

Monday is the deadline to submit public comments on modifications to the decree proposed by the city of Memphis, in advance of a June 17 trial, according to a story about the First Amendment violations by MLK50.

The Reporters Committee’s McAdoo has been trying to get the MLK50 journalists back on the city’s media advisory list for at least the past two months, pointing out in March and April letters that decisions to bar certain reporters runs afoul of protections both in the First Amendment and in the Tennessee Constitution.

“To date, the City’s only response to the undersigned’s letters was a non-substantive acknowledgment of receipt,” McAdoo told the judge.

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