Perhaps the only journalist imprisoned for his writings in the Western Hemisphere isn’t in Cuba or Venezuela, but in the United States.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is alleging that blogger Roger Shuler was jailed for attacking and criticizing state officials, lawyers, judges and law enforcement on his website. Shuler’s name now appears on a CPJ list of journalists imprisoned by dictatorships all over the world.
Shuler was arrested on Oct. 23 for violating a three-week-old restraining order that prohibited him from writing about a former governor’s son in his blog. Shuler has been sitting in jail since because he has refused to obey a court order to stop making blog posts attacking the local politician.
“It seems to me that the judge’s order was really way out of bounds,” civil rights attorney David Gespass told The New York Times. Gespass is one of a number of observers who think that the judge violated the First Amendment by issuing the order.
Blogger Jailed For Criticizing Former Governor’s Son
Shuler’s arrest stems from a series of posts on his blog, Legal Schnauzer. In the posts Shuler alleged that Robert Riley Jr., the son of former Alabama governor Bob Riley, had gotten a lobbyist named Liberty Duke pregnant and paid her to have an abortion.
Riley Jr. and Duke sued Shuler and his wife Carol in July. In the suit the two asked for an injunction to stop Shuler from making further posts. An unidentified judge issued a restraining order to enforce the injunction in September. The Shulers then ignored attempts to serve the injunction on them.
On Oct. 23, a sheriff’s deputy pulled the Shulers over in front of their home and told them they had run a stop sign. The deputy then tried to serve the injunction on Robert who threw it out the window. Robert was arrested and taken to jail. The sheriff’s department filed charges, including resisting arrest, against Shuler.
“How can I resist arrest when I was never shown lawful documentation that shows I was under arrest,” Shuler stated on his blog. The blogger is also alleging brutality against Shelby County sheriff’s deputy Chris Blevins. “Deputy Blevins is claiming this was a resisting arrest case, but the narrative actually shows it was a police brutality case. In his own words, he knocked me to a concrete floor three times and maced me in the face for no reason and without lawful grounds to even be inside my home.”
Shuler claims the deputy violated the Fourth Amendment because he was arrested in his garage. Shuler also alleges that Blevins entered his home and seized personal information without a warrant.
Shuler alleges the arrest was politically motivated. The blogger is an outspoken Democrat; Bob Riley and his son Robert are Republicans.
Free Speech or Cyber Bullying?
Robert Shuler is well-known in Alabama for making sensational attacks against public figures, including judges and politicians. There is apparently no proof of the allegations against Robert Riley Jr.
“Shuler has a history of making up things and writing things that are outlandish lies,” Robert Riley Jr. told the Committee to Project Journalists. “I am going to pursue every avenue possible to me in the courts to defend my name, my family and my business…He has no proof this is true. He has just decided to be a cyber-bully and make stuff up and I’ve had enough.”
Riley accused Shuler of making up lies and destroying reputations. Yet under present legal doctrine, such activity is free speech and protected by the First Amendment. Riley is not doing anything different than super market tabloids or websites like TMZ.
Ali Akbar of the National Blogger’s Club — who dismisses Shuler as a cyberbully and a rumormonger — believes that Shuler’s rights were violated. Akbar, who has threatened to sue Shuler in the past, said the injunction against the Legal Schnauzer could have a “chilling effect on bloggers.”
Ordered to Pay Critics Legal Fees
It is easy to see what Akbar is so worried about. In a Nov. 14 hearing an unidentified judge actually ordered Shuler to remove posts from his blog, stop writing about Riley and Duke and to pay the two $34,000 to reimburse their legal fees. Shuler, an unemployed former reporter, is in no position to pay that money; he even cannot afford Internet service in his home. He also has refused to take down the posts and he remains in jail. He represented himself in court and refused to acknowledge the judge had any jurisdiction over him.
“Idiocy is not a zero-sum game,” Los Angeles attorney Ken White told The Times. “I think you can say that what the court is doing is unconstitutional and troublesome and also that Shuler is his own worst enemy.”
The US Supreme Court has ruled the kind of restraints the judge put on Shuler are a violation of the First Amendment and unconstitutional, Jamie Schuman of the Reporters Committee to Protect Journalists noted. Schuman described Shuler as a former reporter for The Birmingham Post who also worked for the University of Alabama.