Alabama commentator Roger Shuler was released from five months in jail March 26 after removing from his website allegations that a prominent Alabama attorney had had an affair with a lobbyist.
Shuler had been held since Oct. 23 on a contempt of court charge stemming from libel actions brought under seal last summer by Birmingham attorney Robert Riley and lobbyist Liberty Duke, who denied an affair.
Shuler’s condition had sharply worsened during his nearly five months of jailing, as I learned by visiting him in Birmingham March 10.
“It’s a horrible trauma to be away from your wife, your home — and have no idea when you can get out or how,” Shuler told me in a rare interview from a visitor’s cell.
Shuler, 57, nearly choked up at the end of our interview when he said that he feared jail violence, and did not want to die from it. He is shown in his most recent photo, his mug shot the night of his beating by a Shelby County deputy last October. Since then, I have ramped up writing and speaking about the case, most recently on two Alabama radio interviews, with WAPI host Matt Murphy of Birmingham March 27 and with WVNN AM/FM host Dale Jackson the previous day onThe Attack Machine on the Athens-based station in northern Alabama.
The corruption-fighting reporter Shuler said he had lost 16 pounds during his jailing without bond since Oct. 23 on two contempt of court charges. The charges stemmed from his investigative reports alleging a sex scandal.
In a secret lawsuit last summer, Riley and Duke denied Shuler’s reports, which were published on the Legal Schnauzer site Shuler founded in 2007 to expose corrupt practices in Deep South courts and politics. Riley, Duke and their attorneys have not responded to my requests for further comment.
My visit occurred the day after the 50th anniversary of the nation’s most famous free press case, New York Times versus Sullivan, which Shuler’s judge appears to be violating by holding the reporter indefinitely for failing to spike his stories before trial of the Riley and Duke suit.
Today’s column — originally entitled “Jailed Journalist’s Sends Shocking ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ — shows how Shuler’s treatment violates fundamental press freedom and due process law arising in significant part from the 1960s civil rights struggle in Alabama and across the Deep South.
Yet the nation’s journalism leaders — especially those leading media organizations and teaching at universities — have done virtually nothing to help Shuler either to win freedom or otherwise to preserve the national civil rights precedents being violated in his case.
With a few exceptions, most of these leaders and their entities ignore the dark scandals arising across the nation and focus their energies on First Amendment rhetoric, kow-towing to celebrities in government and the media, and promoting scholarships and other efforts to encourage young people to join an oft-glamorized profession.
As a longtime dues-paying member of several of the nation’s leading journalism societies and clubs, I have repeatedly written their leaders without success since October to encourage news articles, panel discussions — or at least letters of protest regarding the Shuler case and those like it.
For the most part, leaders ignore my letters. A few email back to plead lack of sufficient interest by their membership in such matters, or else too little funding or time to add their name to a letter of protest to an Alabama court.
To break the cycle of indifference, I traveled last week from my office in the nation’s capital to visit Shuler in jail.
Shuler’s wife, Carol (shown at right), could only guess at his location. So, I went March 6 to the Jefferson County jail serving Birmingham. The front desk officer erroneously told me Shuler was not there.
The officer’s lack of knowledge illustrated a common problem involving the nation’s two million prisoners and their visitors. The visitor and prisoner-locator situation seems to be especially bad in political cases in Alabama, where authorities have a track record of intentionally keeping prisoners away from family, friends and the media in order to inflict extra punishment on their political targets. In this instance, the information officer appeared affable, and so my lack of access seemed simply to be an error.
On March 10, five days after my first visit, I was able to visit Shuler by confirming independently that he had been, in fact, at the Jefferson County jailhouse on March 6.
Authorities admitted me. But I gained entrance only because I am an attorney and Shuler lacks counsel. Other visitors can enter only one day per week on the jail’s pre-planned schedule based on the alphabet, not a visitor’s schedule.
This column is entitled “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” to recall the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent 1963 letter while jailed. He called on everyone to take a responsibility to fight injustice. Authorities denied King writing materials in Birmingham’s jail. So, he wrote much of his “letter” on the margins of a newspaper and other paper scraps smuggled out.
In somewhat similar fashion, I am a messenger delivering Shuler’s words to you now via rough notes from the jailhouse, where Shuler is being held and silenced.
These notes portray a shocking picture, including a massive failure by the nation’s news media.
“I was surprised,” as Alabama’s ACLU Director Randall Marshall told me two weeks ago, “that there wasn’t more of an outcry from the media world when this first happened.” The ACLU filed a friend of the court brief, but is not representing Shuler.
What’s At Stake
“I see this more as a kidnapping than a defamation case,” Shuler told me from a visiting room in the jail. Let’s examine why: