In Defense of Freedom of Speech

Photo of protester arrested in Petal, Mississippi

Petal, MS, protesters Dennis Harris and his partner

Mississippi Center for Justice was founded to promote racial and economic justice and is proud to defend the free speech rights of those who speak out against racism, oppression, and injustice. Recently, we represented Black Lives Matter protesters in Petal and two University of Mississippi professors in the midst of controversies related to their public statements.


“If you can say you can’t breathe, you’re breathing.” With those words, Petal, MS, Mayor Hal Marx drew condemnation from across the nation following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, by police officer Derek Chauvin. Community members and local advocacy groups, including Black Lives Matter supporters, launched a series of protests and called for the immediate resignation of the mayor.


Two of them, Dennis Harris and Charlotte Ciobanu, were arrested and prosecuted on misdemeanor charges. Both were initially found guilty in Petal Municipal Court. Our Deputy Director of Impact Litigation, Paloma Wu, defended Harris in municipal court and then filed an appeal to obtain a new trial in Forrest County Court, where she defended him again. After that trial, the Forrest County Judge found Harris not guilty on both of the charges brought against him. In the meantime, Wu also filed an appeal for Ciobanu. After Wu won the Harris trial, the prosecutor dismissed the charges against Ciobanu and the municipal court conviction was erased.


MCJ also represented two professors at the University of Mississippi who chose to raise their voices in opposition to systemic racism. After Sociology Professor James Thomas joined a national two-day “#ScholarStrike” to call attention to racism and injustice, Mississippi State Auditor Shad White falsely accused him of violating Mississippi’s law prohibiting certain public employee strikes and publicly called for his termination. MCJ’s Director of Impact Litigation, Rob McDuff, then released a public statement explaining that Dr. Thomas did not violate that law and fulfilled his usual duties as a faculty member, and we subsequently filed a defamation suit for Professor Thomas against Auditor White for making that false claim. That lawsuit is pending and Dr. Thomas remains in his position at the University.


After the University of Mississippi’s controversial decision to terminate the tenure-track contract of History Professor Garrett Felber, a teacher and activist who worked with incarcerated people and spoke out against white supremacy and the prison-industrial complex, we represented Professor Felber and negotiated a settlement on his behalf with the University. Though we believed his termination, which came after his pointed criticisms of the University, was a clear violation of the First Amendment, Dr. Felber decided to forego a court battle seeking reinstatement and instead to focus on continuing his work from a position outside the University. Dr. Felber recently accepted a faculty fellowship at Yale University.


During this time of significant protest against systemic racism, MCJ is proud to play a role in defending the free speech rights of those engaged in the protests and those who raise awareness of the important issues facing our state and our nation.


Today, fight with MCJ by making a tax-deductible gift to support our First Amendment rights.


Vangela M. Wade is president and CEO of Mississippi Center for Justice