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THE MERIDIAN STAR, INC. and JIM WYNN v. HOWARD WILLIAMS CONSOLIDATED WITH THE MERIDIAN STAR

OCTOBER 04, 1989

THE MERIDIAN STAR, INC. and JIM WYNN
v.
HOWARD WILLIAMS CONSOLIDATED WITH THE MERIDIAN STAR, INC. and JIM WYNN v. DR. HOBERT KORNEGAY, JR.



BEFORE HAWKINS, P.J., PRATHER and BLASS, JJ.

BLASS, JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

Dr. Hobert Kornegay, Jr. and Howard Williams, members of the Meridian City Council, each brought a libel action against The Meridian Star, Inc., and its editor, Jim Wynn. Both complained of the editorials published on October 3, and November 6, 1985, and each sought $100,000 in actual and $1,000,000 in punitive damages. The cases were consolidated for trial. Both defendants moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The motions were denied, and the case was tried before a jury which found for the plaintiffs. The trial court entered judgment accordingly for $20,000 in each case. We reverse.

The basis of the complaint was two editorials written by Mr. Wynn: "Mayor Learning that Councilmen Can't be Trusted" (October 3, 1985) and "Council Actions Cause Concern for City's Future" (November 6, 1985).

 In July, 1985, the City of Meridian changed from a council-manager to a mayor-council form of government. Wallace Heggie served as City Manager until July, 1985. Although the mayor-council government has no city manager, a comparable administrative position exists which is called the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). During the transition in governments, all former department heads were retained in their positions for the first ninety days. Wallace Heggie was

 appointed CAO by unanimous vote of the Council for this same ninety-day period.

 On October 1, 1985, at the end of the ninety-day period, the Council met and voted on the appointment of Wallace Heggie as CAO. At that meeting the Council voted three to two against appointing Heggie. That same evening, Mayor Kemp told the appellant, Jim Wynn about the vote and the events leading to the it.

 Mayor Kemp testified at pretrial depositions and at trial that he notified the council members of his intent to appoint Heggie prior to the October 1, 1985. He invited any objections prior to the submission of Heggie's name in order to avoid any embarrassment to Heggie or the Council. Kemp said only one member of the City Council, Mr. Frasier, clearly opposed the appointment and he understood that the others would approve. Heggie also contacted the other members and was under the same impression.

 Following his conversation with Mayor Kemp, Jim Wynn wrote the first of the subject editorials published October 3, 1985. After publication of this editorial, Kornegay and Williams consulted their attorney who wrote to The Meridian Star stating that the editorial was false and defamatory and demanding a public apology within ten days. The Meridian Star responded that nothing stated in the October 3, 1985, editorial was untrue or defamatory and no apology was made.

 On November 5, 1985, the City Council met and a request for approval of a claim docket was considered. Among other things, a $5,500 payment to Merrihope, an antebellum home in Meridian, was considered. This item had been approved by the Council in an earlier action, but was on the claim docket then for approval of payment. Councilmen Frasier, Kornegay and Williams voted against payment. On November 6, 1985, Jim Wynn wrote an editorial, "Council actions Cause Concern for City's Future," which was published in The Meridian Star.

 Attached to defendants' motions to dismiss, or in the alternative for a summary judgment, were affidavits of James B. Skewes, editor and publisher of The Meridian Star, and Jim Wynn. Both indicated the editorials contained factually correct information and that the editorials were commentary and opinions. Jim Wynn referred to the block which appears above all editorials in The Meridian Star clearly labeling the articles as opinions. He stated that so far as he knew or believed, the facts in both editorials were true and had been obtained from reliable sources. These included the Mayor of the City of Meridian, J. W. Kemp. Wynn also stated that if any fact in the

 two editorials was incorrect, he did not know it to be incorrect at the time of the publication; that the plaintiffs were public officials at the time the editorials were published; and that neither editorial was written and published with malice.

 The plaintiffs filed an answer to the motions. The only evidence of actual malice claimed by Dr. Kornegay was his statement that Wynn made racial slurs about him. Mr. Williams' counter-affidavit contains no allegations of fact to support actual malice. Neither affidavit contained evidence of "actual malice" .

 Jim Wynn's testimony at trial was essentially identical to his affidavit. Mayor Kemp's and Heggie's trial testimony confirmed that the facts in the editorials were true.

 The threshold question in this case is whether the statements made in the subject articles are defamatory. Fulton v. Mississippi Publishers Corp., 498 So. 2d 1215, 1216 (Miss. 1986); Ferguson v. Watkins, 448 So. 2d 271, 275 (Miss. 1984). In ...


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