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Jailed Journalist Sends Shocking 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'

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He has several judges arrayed against him.

But his chief tormenter, Claud (sic) Neilson is not even a real judge elected to serve in the jurisdiction by standard procedures.

Neilson is an attorney who, for example, represents plaintiffs against the state's leading civil rights law firm, Sanders and Sanders, in a politically charged multimillion-dollar suit. Details are here: Selma's once thriving Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders law firm much smaller and splintered.  

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who notoriously ignored the U.S. Supreme Court's establishment of religion holdings in the so-called "Ten Commandments Case" a decade ago, brought Neilson out of retirement in mysterious circumstances last summer.

Moore named Neilson to serve as a part-time state judge to handle the Shuler case, whose docket and courtroom were kept secret during its main procedures.

The beating and jailing of Shuler last October under Neilson's contempt order had the effect of silencing a major regional pro-consumer voice in Alabama and the Deep South.

Financially strapped mainstream news organizations in Alabama and elsewhere have cut back on their coverage of such government functions as courts, law and police. Birmingham's daily newspaper (one of whose predecessors employed Shuler as a reporter for nine years) is published in print just three days per week to save money, for example.

Even those who do not like Shuler, his reporting, and the subjects of his commentaries might care about the national civil rights precedents being undermined with scant protest by his treatment. Those Constitutional protections were created by the founders and solidified by the courts to protect the public, not just reporters.

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In 1813, for example, the Supreme Court voided by a 5-4 vote in U.S. v. Hudson and Goodwin the criminal convictions for seditious libel against the publishers of the Hartford Courant for their 1806 criticism of then-President Thomas Jefferson. In arguably the first free press case before the high court, the justices ruled that criminal convictions in the new nation must be on the basis of written law, not simply "common law" or other such informal legal tests.

The Courant was my first employer when I began my journalism career in 1970. I worked there as a reporter for 14 years, with an interlude as interim Sunday magazine editor. Later, my study of the Hudson and Goodwin libel prosecution provided a historical backdrop for my first book, Spiked: How Chain Management Corrupted America's Oldest Newspaper, published in 1987.

In 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court took another major step on behalf of vigorous reporting in its  Near v. Minnesota ruling, which forbade courts from ordering "prior restraint" of news articles and speeches of all kinds before a finding of liability even if the publisher and the allegation each might offend local sensibilities.

Perhaps most importantly of all these cases, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964 overturned by a 9-0 vote a $500,000 libel judgment Alabama authorities had won against civil rights leaders and the New York Times.

The Sullivan verdict against Montgomery Public Safety Commissioner L. B. Sullivan also overturned nearly $300 million in similar libel verdicts in the Deep South against the media. The ruling created a special "absolute malice" standard for reporting about obvious public figures such as Sullivan, Robert Riley and Luther Strange (and arguably the female plaintiffs as well).

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This safe harbor for reporters -- and indeed all citizens -- to discuss public affairs whether in print or in speech thereby enabled vigorous national news coverage of the civil rights movement and all other public figures and issues since then. As a reminder, defendants in that case were not simply the New York Times, as nearly anyone seriously involved in journalism knows, but also citizens who had used the Times to portray the pro-segregation track record of Sullivan and other local officials.

Theoretically, that Supreme Court holding protects everyone -- except Shuler, apparently.

His judges have never applied the Sullivan standard to my knowledge, although it is impossible for outside observers to tell since the most relevant parts of his ordeal occurred in a sealed courtroom with a sealed docket. Court deputies barred from attending his key November hearing before Neilson any observers, except the judge's brother, who wanted to meet the wealthy wheeler-dealer plaintiff Riley, as I reported previously. 

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Andrew Kreig is an investigative reporter, attorney, author, business strategist, radio host, and longtime non-profit executive based in Washington, DC. His most recent book is "Presidential Puppetry: Obama, Romney and Their Masters," the (more...)
 

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