Tenn. journalist claims mayor pressured newspaper to fire him

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Newport Plain Talk conspired with a Tennessee mayor to deprive a former reporter of his First Amendment rights, claims a $90 million lawsuit awaiting action in federal court.

Gary Butler, a reporter and photographer with the Plain Talk since 1999, was fired by the newspaper in 2007, allegedly for pursuing stories that may have presented Cocke County Mayor Iliff McMahan Jr. in a negative light.

“I conducted myself professionally at all times,” Butler told the First Amendment Center Online. “I even voted for this fellow, I was not an enemy of his. I just came to have questions about his honesty and the more I looked into it as a reporter, the more I was rebuffed. [The Plain Talk editors] were shielding him for some reason.”

Butler’s lawsuit in the Eastern Tennessee District Court at Greenville, Tenn., describes a series of incidents in which Butler claims McMahan directly interfered with the newspaper’s management, including one instance when the mayor purportedly demanded that all photographs of him without a mustache and goatee be destroyed.

The lawsuit also alleges that McMahan exercised prior restraint over letters to the editor by requiring all dissenting letters be sent to him for review so they could be published with his reply. It was newspaper policy to print negative letters only with a response. According to the lawsuit, Charles Louis Moore, the previous county mayor, complained loudly about not being able to review letters to the editor during his term.

Court papers say that before being fired, Butler was investigating a report that McMahan had participated in a “canned hunt,” a type of illegal bear hunt. During his investigation, Butler interviewed Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency agents who followed up on his questions directly by questioning McMahan. After that questioning, Butler alleges that McMahan contacted Plain Talk Managing Editor Jim Hekel and demanded that he be fired. The lawsuit further alleges that McMahan suggested that if Butler were not fired, the newspaper would suffer “retaliation.”

The newspaper, however, argued in an April 24, 2007, article about the case that Butler was fired for biased reporting and insubordination. Butler was removed from the county beat in 2004, according to the unbylined article, because of a perceived “intense hostility” towards McMahan’s administration and was told not to “personally involve himself in any story whatsoever concerning McMahan without discussing it first either with [Plain Talk Editor David] Popiel or … the managing editor.” Popiel, a defendant in the suit, claims in the Plain Talk article that the instruction given to Butler was designed to protect the newspaper’s reputation, not McMahan.

Two years since the suit was filed, the case is at a standstill. The defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment and both parties are awaiting a verdict from the federal magistrate as to whether or not the case can proceed. A court date was tentatively set for March 19.

Butler seeks a maximum of $90 million in damages based on eight state claims of action and two federal claims, including the alleged First Amendment violation. Also named in the case are Plain Talk owners Jones Media Inc. and John M. Jones, publisher of the newspaper.

Numerous members of the Newport community wrote letters to Butler expressing support of him, including business leaders, legislators and the chief of police.

McMahan and editors at Plain Talk refused to comment for this story.

Lance Conzett is a senior majoring in journalism at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

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