Alabama commentator Roger Shuler’s condition has 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. It was just his second jailhouse interview overall and his only one this year.
Shuler, 57, nearly choked up at the end when he said that he missed his wife — who is afraid to leave their home (except on secret, emergency food runs) because of the threat she will be arrested for her husband’s reporting. Also, he said that he fears jail violence, and did not want to die from it. He is shown in his mug shot the night of his beating by a Shelby County deputy last October.
The corruption-fighting reporter said he has 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 involving the prominent Alabama lawyer Robert Riley Jr. and lobbyist Liberty Duke.
In the lawsuit filed last summer under seal against the Shulers, Riley and Duke denied Shuler’s reports, which were published on the Legal Schnauzer site Shuler founded in 2007 to reveal suppressed and other under-reported stories involving 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 in history, New York Times v. 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 suits.
Today’s column 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 focus their energies on awards, First Amendment rhetoric, kow-towing to celebrities in government and the media, encouraging young people to join a falsely glamorized “profession” — and ignoring the dark scandals arising across the nation in legal scandals like those inflicted on Shuler.
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 plead lack of sufficient interest by their membership in such matters, or else too little funding or time to add their organizational name to a letter of protest to an Alabama court.
To break the cycle, I traveled last week to visit Shuler.
Shuler’s wife, Carol, 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. This lack of knowledge illustrated what I understand to be 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.
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’s famous 1963 non-violent civil resistance as authorities held him in a Birmingham’s jail. Denied writing materials, King wrote much of his eloquent call for everyone to take on a responsibility to fight injustice. He wrote his words on the margins of a newspaper and other paper scraps.
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 add up to a shocking picture.
“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.