The prominent investigative blogger Roger Shuler was arrested and beaten by sheriff’s deputies at his Alabama home late Oct. 23. He remains jailed at press time early Oct. 25 on charges stemming from his refusal to obey a judge’s order to stop writing adversely about Robert Riley Jr., a well-connected attorney who is part of Alabama’s most prominent political family.
Shuler’s wife, Carol, told me she was barricaded in their home in Birmingham, worried about her own safety from deputies seeking to her arrest her also for contempt of court charges. Roger Shuler, now being held on a $1,000 bond and facing a hearing Oct. 25, is shown at right in a file photo outside his home with the family’s pet dog, Murphy, who inspired his blog, Legal Schnauzer.
His columns are often excerpted on the Justice Integrity Project and reprinted in full by OpEd News, Salon, FireDogLake, among other sites.
More generally, the law enforcement actions against the Shulers represent a major setback for the nation’s embattled media. The Riley defamation case represents an eerie parallel that has the effect of reversing aspects of the nation’s leading First Amendment Supreme Court case. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the court in 1964 held that Alabama police commissioner L.B. Sullivan had to prove actual malice before receiving a $500,000 jury verdict against the New York Times for relatively minor errors in a Times ad that civil rights groups had purchased to protest the harsh pro-segregation regime enforced by Sullivan.
The Supreme Court decision finding a First Amendment basis for protecting newspaper comment, even if an error occurs, made possible national news coverage of the civil rights movement that had been thwarted by millions of dollars of libel verdicts from Deep South juries on behalf of white supremacists seeking to ruin those news organizations that dared cover that era’s struggles against desegregation and suppression of black voting rights.
Under the current generation’s political partisans in what is known as the Cradle of the Confederacy, the prior restraint and secret court proceedings ordered against Shuler also strike at the nation’s fundamental protections for the free press. Alabama’s Supreme Court has ruled that court proceedings are presumed public.
But readers here know that Alabama’s state and federal courts have increasingly ordered secret proceedings to protect the privacy of prominent officials accused of corruption.
Furthermore, the state’s three largest newspapers are each on three-times-a-week publication schedules because of weak finances. After massive staff layoffs and management loyalty to the state’s essentially one-party political process, the newspapers now largely ignore courtroom and political power plays that as recently as a decade ago would have attracted many news stories.
Under guidance from Karl Rove and his allies, virtually all major state and federal offices have become Republican except for one gerrymandered congressional district combining many of the state’s black and other Democratic-oriented voters. The Atlantic Magazine reported the process in a major article in 2004.
Unpaid bloggers such as Shuler, age 56, provide commentary and news commentary about the courts that few else dare attempt.
Meanwhile, the much-weakened national media and national civil liberties groups largely remain aloof from the struggles of bloggers. I have observed many times that DC-based reporters and civil rights organizations tend to have rose-colored views regarding the integrity of politicians and judges. Also, they rely heavily on wire service reports generated by local newspapers for information about such Deep South travesties as those routinely occurring in Alabama.