Court rules in favor of ‘Lumberton Informer’ over city clerk

By BUSTER WOLFE,

The Mississippi Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s finding in favor of “Lumberton Informer” publisher Jonathan Griffith in a 2015 slander and libel case against Lumberton City Clerk Merlene Wall Tuesday.

Wall had sued Griffith for libel and slander and received an injunction in Lamar County Court ordering Griffith to stop writing defamatory material about Wall in the blog. However, when the case when to trial, the judge ruled in Griffith’s favor because the publisher said he had no control over the anonymous comments about Wall that were vulgar and crass in response to his blog.

The final judgment stated that Wall was a public figure and Griffith had a First Amendment right to criticize her as long as the comments were not false and were not made with malice. Griffith’s comments were determined to be just opinions, not factually false. Because there was insufficient evidence that Griffith had control over the anonymous comments, the court rule that he was not responsible for their content.

So Wall appealed the County Court decision to the 15th Circuit Court, arguing that federal law required Griffith to screen offensive material. However, Griffith did not answer by filing a brief. Circuit Court Judge Tony Mozingo then ruled in favor of Wall, saying that Griffith’s failure to answer the charge amounted to a confession of error.

However, the Court of Appeals ruled that Mozingo had two choices he could have made in the appeal after Griffith did not file a response. First, Mozingo could have taken Griffith’s failure to replay as a confession of error and reverse the decision – which he did – “when the record is complicated or voluminous, and the appellant (Wall) has presented an apparent case of error.”

The second choice is “to disregard the appellee’s (Griffith’s) failure to file a brief and affirm the (judgement).” The Court of Appeals said the second option should have been followed because the records is not complicated or voluminous and Wall did not present an apparent case of error.

Judge David M. Ishee wrote the opinion for the court as he, Presiding Judges Tyree Irving and T. Kenneth Griffis and Judges Donna M. Barnes, Eugene L. Fair Jr., Jack L. Wilson, Jim M. Greenlee and Latrice A. Westbrooks concurred. Judge Virginia C. Carlton dissented, but did not write a separate opinion.

The attorney representing Griffith was Alexander Ignatiev, while William Ducker was the attorney for Wall.