BEFORE HAWKINS, P.J., GRIFFIN and ZUCCARO, JJ.
GRIFFIN, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:
This is a libel action brought against a newspaper, The Delta Democrat-Times (DD-T), and its editorial columnist, Ken Cazalas.
The appellant, Mrs. Sarah H. Johnson, the only black person of seven who comprise the City Council of Greenville, filed a complaint based on libel and actionable words, 95-1-1, Miss. Code Ann. (1972), against The Delta Democrat-Times (DD-T) and its editor. She sought $450,000 in actual damages and $3.5 million in punitive damages. The basis of the complaint is a column by Mr. Cazalas: "A high brand of hypocrisy down at City Hall," which was published on November 24, 1985, in the editorial page column. The column criticizes the city council for holding closed meetings and
refusing to release annexation records. The column is reprinted below:
Mercy me. Some City Council members have been sniping at Your Favorite Editor. I read it in the paper twice last week so it must be so.
One of them says she won't talk to reporters any more. She says she will maintain her verbal embargo "until your editor stops using the City Council as a whipping boy."
Another said "the editor is constantly on us unjustly; he's called us crooks, thieves and everything else."
I checked with my reporters just to be sure, and I'm happy to report that we will be able to keep putting out the paper every day without the gentle councilwoman's comments. We'll keep asking her questions, though, because we feel that maybe the folks who voted for her might be interested in what she's up to down there at City Hall. The truth is, when we quote council members, they're not doing us any favors; they're communicating with the public which pays their salary.
Heck, I don't blame them for not wanting to answer questions. They've got the jobs sewn up until the next election, after all, so why should they have to bother answering questions which might get sticky at times?
The comment that I had called them everything in the book was downright silly. I've only called them a few things. I haven't even gotten to some of the good stuff. I haven't called them brigands, blackguards, pecksniffs, bedlamites, bandicoots, or bloodsuckers yet, and there's more where those came from.
I have never seen it fail. These politicians get themselves elected by promising everything to everybody and once they get entrenched in their jobs, holding tenaciously on in the public bloodstream like so many viruses, they suddenly feel above the corpus they are leeching.
One of these politicians went so far as to
claim the City Council has nothing to hide, nor is it trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. That's great to hear, but tell me this: Why did they go behind closed doors 52 times during the first 10 months of 1985 to hold secret meetings? And tell me this: Why is that every time we seek a public document, even when such document is sitting on the counter in our reporter's view, the City Fathers force us into a labyrinthial ritual to get it? The reporter must write a formal letter, then wait 14 days for a reply, by which time the information usually is so old as to be useless. If they're not hiding anything, pray tell me: Why has the DD-T been forced to file several such formal, written requests each month - even when we want to pick up so benign a document as the City Council agenda packet?
Nothing to hide? Then why do they hide virtually everything they can? Nothing to hide? Poppycock!
A high brand of hypocrisy - or a low brand of chicanery - is being practiced down at City Hall these days. Its object may be to punish a newspaper, or its editor. But its effect is to punish the good people of Greenville. The people are being kept in the dark by a handful of politicians who prefer operating behind closed doors to operating in front of the people who elected them.
One of the councilmen was quoted in the paper last week as saying "I wish the newspaper would get with us instead of fighting us." All you've got to do, Mr. Councilman, is open your doors and let some sunshine in.
I called Mayor Bill Burnley Thursday afternoon and politely asked him four questions about the city's annexation attempts: What has the city paid in attorney's fees for its annexation case? What did the annexation exhibits cost the taxpayers? What did the feasibility studies cost the taxpayers? And, what did the expert witnesses cost the taxpayers?
The mayor wrote down the questions and said
he would get back to me. Well, he got back to me all right, stonewalling me with a letter referring me to the city clerk who says, in effect, that the city has no idea how much of our money it has spent on its annexation attempts. They have been using tax dollars to pay lawyers, draftsmen, demographers, field engineers, statisticians and various and sundry other draymen for four years now. I am ...