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The Mississippi Widlife Federation issued the following statement.
The Mississippi Wildlife Federation (“MWF”) filed suit seeking damages and injunctive relief against multiple individuals and entities for unconstitutional retaliation against MWF for exercising its First Amendment right to political speech. The suit, which outlines a conspiracy to achieve the unconstitutional takeover of MWF’s annual trademarked Wildlife Extravaganza, and the denial of MWF’s access to public lands – paid for with
taxpayer funding – for scheduled events, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.
Monetary and injunctive relief is being sought against: Sam Polles (individually and for injunctive relief in his official capacity as Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks), Andy Gipson (individually and for injunctive relief in his official capacity as Executive Director/Chairman of the Mississippi State Fair Commission), Steve Hutton (former Executive Director of the State Fair Commission), Don Brazil, Jack Fisher, and the Foundation for Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, & Parks.
For 33 years, MWF has held its Extravaganza annually at the Mississippi Trade Mart during the first weekend of August as the unofficial kick-off to hunting season. The Extravaganza has been one of the organization’s largest sources of funding since MWF’s inception. However, based on its past stance in opposition to the Yazoo Pumps Project in the midst of 2019’s catastrophic flooding in the Mississippi Delta and the mistaken perception that MWF denied a booth to the #FinishthePumps coalition, its long-standing lease for the Trade Mart was taken away
and measures were put in place by state officials to ensure the MWF would not be able to hold its Extravaganza or other signature events again.
As outlined in the 44-page Complaint and accompanying documents obtained by public records requests, Defendants, through a series of secret meetings and calls held almost immediately after the 2019 Extravaganza, met and conspired to, and in fact, terminated MWF’s valid lease for the Trade Mart; awarded the lease to Defendant Foundation, a private organization that directly supports the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, under a new sham policy for facility rental with plans to host a competing wildlife and outdoor event that would piggyback and capitalize on the Federation’s longstanding show; added language to state lease agreements that would prevent the Federation from hosting a similar show; pulled funding, support, and donations to MWF; and denied MWF access to state-run and taxpayer funded properties for conducting its signature events. In addition, the Defendants conspired to contract with Extravaganza vendors to interfere with MWF’s business relationships, entice the vendors to join the Foundation’s new event, and damage MWF’s reputation. The complaint seeks monetary damages and injunctive relief.
The MWF’s stance on the Yazoo Pumps Project, as well as its position on any other environmental, conservation and regulatory flood control issues, is constitutionally protected free speech. Any attempt by government officials and co-conspirators to interfere with, prohibit and take over MWF’s private enterprise in retaliation for MWF’s stance on such matters of public concern is a violation of MWF’s First Amendment rights and an unlawful interference with contractual and business relationships.
“It is unfortunate that we have had to resort to litigation to address this situation,” says Ashlee Ellis Smith, MWF CEO. “But, individuals should not be able to abuse the governmental authority they have been given to punish private organizations, nor should they be able to prevent those organizations from exercising their First Amendment rights, especially when those individuals are motivated by politics and monetary gain. We are bringing this suit in the hopes that it will prevent the same or similar behavior toward ours and other private entities going forward.”
The Mississippi Wildlife Federation was established in 1946 by a small group of sportsmen who believed that citizens could influence how our lands, wildlife, coasts, and rivers are managed. Today, the MWF is the largest network of conservationists in the state. We are comprised of individuals, businesses, and organizations committed to natural resource conservation, environmental quality, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation in Mississippi. We are a
citizen’s organization, not a state or federal agency. MWF’s mission is to conserve Mississippi’s natural resources and protect our wildlife legacy.
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