Jailed Journalist Update: Media Respond Timidly; Judge Fights Civil Rights Firm; Rights Anniversaries Loom
The nation’s journalists have compiled an erratic and ineffective record of supporting jailed journalist Roger Shuler, an Alabama blogger who has spent more than five months behind bars for failing to spike his stories before a libel trial.
Meanwhile, the presiding judge Claud [sic] Neilson, shown in a file photo, is also a hired gun attorney fighting one of the Deep South’s best-known civil rights firms. According to an Associated Press story, it has been devastated by the costs of long-running civil rights litigation. At the same time, the anniversary is next month of a major national civil rights celebration that a firm partner has led since shortly after the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma against oppression.
On that occasion, 150 police officers used clubs, bullwhips, tear gas and horses in a surprise attack against peaceful marchers. The display, captured on video below, helped shock the public enough to move Congressional approval of the historic Voting Rights Act that summer.
But the Supreme Court last summer voided key provisions of that law at the request of Shelby County, the same conservative jurisdiction that is jailing the progressive blogger Shuler. To redress such rights deprivations of recent years, an impressive educational campaign is planned next month surrounding a new march planned in Selma on March 9 that I’ll be attending and previewing on these pages.
Another notable anniversary in the region is the 50th anniversary March 10 of the New York Times v. Sullivan U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dismissed a trumped-up libel judgment in Alabama. The ruling enabled national news coverage of the 1960s civil rights struggle and has been regarded otherwise until recent Alabama lower court fiat as a bulwark for the nation’s free press.
Today’s column addresses these inter-related developments, most of them located in central Alabama in a triangular region encompassing Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham. Shelby County, just south of the Birmingham, is the jailer of Shuler. The county also was the plaintiff in a civil rights victory to void key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
I am traveling to Selma for the march next month and giving speeches at nearby venues to raise awareness of widespread rights violations that turn back the clock. I hope you’ll read further, and join me in Selma or nearby.
The clip above is from a National Archives video, Confrontations for Justice, about the 1965 Selma march.
Regarding the media, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) included Shuler as the only jailed journalist within the Western Hemisphere in its annual list of more than 200 incarcerated unfairly around the world. Inclusion has been a bright spot for the Birmingham-based writer in his fight to regain his freedom and resume writing about others victimized by the legal system. Shuler, shown in his mug shot after his beating by deputies during his arrest in his garage, would be far less visible without CPJ’s recognition of his ordeal.
Several other news organizations or outlets cited the CPJ’s mention in news treatments about his situation. Most mentions were brief news items in web reports primarily read by members. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also submitted a legal brief as a friend of the court, but does not serve as his lawyer.
In January, the New York Times ran a full-length Sunday feature story on Shuler’s plight: pre-trial jailing in apparent violation of legal precedents.
But the Times timid approach glossed over the appalling circumstances, among other dubious reporting decisions, as we described here Jan. 17 in Alabama Court Again Hammers Blogger As NY Times Flubs Libel Story.
The March 10 anniversary for the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan provides an occasion to reflect on what has been widely regarded until now as a precedent that has enabled robust media coverage of public figures. By a 9-0 vote, the court rejected libel damages of $500,000 in a case that an Alabama police commissioner had brought against civil rights workers and the Times because of minor errors in a Times ad purchased by segregation opponents.
The ruling also voided nearly $300 million in other libel judgments across the Deep South brought by segregationists against news organizations. The “absolute malice” standard the court cited in the ruling requires public figures alleging libel to prove at trial that a communicator knew a claim was false, or else proceeded recklessly without making an attempt to check the facts.
Neilson has defied those settled holdings in the Sullivan decision by his pro-plaintiff and ex parte decision-making even before a trial of the facts. In November, the judge held a “trial,” with practical ability for the jailed Shuler to call witnesses, have an attorney or otherwise prepare a case. The so-called trial occurred with Shuler in chains and any spectators forbidden from entering the courtroom by deputies.
“I was surprised,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama Legal Director Randall C. Marshall, “that there wasn’t more of an outcry from the media world when this first happened.”