No Defense for the First Amendment

The news media of Alabama — particularly the Alabama Media Group/ — shamed itself by not defending the First Amendment against its assault by a Shelby County judge.

Granted, the case is as bizarre as the behavior of the blogger involved.  But First Amendment cases are a matter of principle, regardless of the individual whose rights are attacked.  It is not up to the courts — nor the news media — to determine who deserves First Amendment protection.  Freedom of the press is a right of the people, not the news media.

When acting Shelby County Circuit Judge Claud Neilson issued an injunction preventing Legal Schnauzer blogger Roger Shuler from writing about an alleged affair between a former governor’s son and a Republican lobbyist, that was unconstitutional and the state’s news media should have responded quickly.

The injunction was issued before Oct. 3, when Shuler said he was served with the order, and he was arrested on Wednesday, Oct. 23, for violating it.  The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote about it on Friday, Oct. 25.

But where were the “leading” news sites of Alabama when all this was going on?  Absent and silent.  The RCFP (a respected media rights watchdog group) reported it, and other bloggers expressed outrage, but a Google News search for four days after the RCFP report turned up nothing else.

Finally, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, the Alabama Media Group posted a story about the case.  It was well reported and included the constitutional controversy, but that was as far as it went.  No editorial opposition or further comment.  AMG, which includes three of the biggest and most distinguished newspapers in the state — the Birmingham NewsMobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — has allowed this story to die along with Shuler’s First Amendment rights.

(Note: Daily visits to the search page for “Shuler” produced nothing until the Oct. 29 article.  A more recent search referred to an article under “Clay, AL community news” on Oct. 28, and one under “Pelham local impact” on Oct. 25.  However, both articles share the heading used by the Oct. 29 article, and a link to those pages does not show an article on the day in question, so I am taking that for a glitch.)

Other state newspapers do not fare well, either.  Neither the Montgomery Advertiser nor the Tuscaloosa News have reported or commented on this.  Even the Shelby County Reporter, a lively community newspaper that covers Neilson’s court, did not post an article until Oct. 29.

This silence by the state’s newspapers is deplorable and sets a poor example for the next generation of journalists.  The political motivations of Judge Neilson’s actions — granting an unconstitutional prior restraint to Bob Riley Jr., the former governor’s son — are apparent.

In a state like Alabama, where political dirty tricks and insider networks poison state politics, it’s even more scary.  When shady state political leaders see something like this happening, with no legal or media response, you wonder if they consider this another trick to add to the bag in dealing with critics and opponents.

People argue that Shuler’s actions in flaunting a judge’s order deserve arrest and imprisonment, but that misses the point.  The restraining order that created this circus should not have been issued, period.

The traditional recourse for someone like Riley Jr. is to sue Shuler for libel.  If Shuler is the journalistic disaster he claims, Riley can sue him and add financial bankruptcy to the ethical bankruptcy he alleges concerning Shuler.

That is the correct remedy, not issuing restraining orders before things are written.  Such judicial overreach creates a “chilling effect” on public debate that certainly is convenient for state politicians, but defies decades of Supreme Court precedent.  You blew it, Judge Neilson.

And until the state’s newspapers step forward and do their part to defend the First Amendment that protects their right to publish, they are just as complicit by their silence.

In an Internet age, where the speed of news transmission and the breadth of news contributors have both exploded, all journalists must hold on to such enduring foundational treasures against all threats.  It is our duty.

Steve Spurrier and the Media Mess

There is so much not to like with this Steve Spurrier-Ron Morris dust-up in Columbia, S.C.  It’s hard to find anyone doing the right thing.

1. Start with Spurrier.  His remarks seemed directly not only at Ron Morris, the offending sports columnist for The State in Columbia, but also at any sports journalist who would be tempted to take on the Old Ball Coach.

It just seems a bit creepy when a coach turns his attention to the media who cover him and complains.  Most coaches don’t like the criticism that is written about them.  They are not expected to celebrate the First Amendment when they are on the receiving end of a blast.  But most coaches ignore it.

When Spurrier crossed that line, it was unfortunate and unnecessary.  It started with a refusal to answer questions both at a press conference and on a conference call.  It finished with a blunt statement on his weekly radio show.

2. Morris is not off the hook either.  The breaking point for many besides Spurrier came when Morris, in complaining about Spurrier’s high-handedness and the university’s unwillingness to rein him in, compared the situation to Penn State.  Throwing such analogies out require great care.  He was forced to apologize, but he should have known better.

As to whether Ron Morris is the journalistic buzz-saw Spurrier alleges, check out his recent column on Spurrier’s decision to play Connor Shaw against UAB.  I’ll be honest; I’ve read worse.  This doesn’t come close to what Skip Bayless would have said or what Jason Whitlock would have written in similar conditions.

But this is the article that Spurrier was referring to as “very negative, critical toward me, slandered my name, my integrity,” adding, “The guy’s trying to tarnish and ruin my reputation as a coach.”  Really, Coach?  He comes off sounding awfully thin-skinned.

True, much of the controversy surrounding Morris involves an article he wrote more than a year ago that accused Spurrier of “poaching” Bruce Ellington from the USC basketball team.  The facts for that are definitely in dispute.  But the more recent column is light years away from that.

3. WOLO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Columbia, also looks bad.  The station managers cancelled the “Mondays with Morris” segment in light of the controversies.  The timing of such a move looks bad enough, almost like pandering to Spurrier.

But WOLO general manager Chris Bailey compounded the mistake with a statement that includes the following gem: “Free speech … was originally put in place to protect media and writers from government censorship.  It does not, however, protect the writer from consequences in the realm of public opinion or the marketplace.”  Perhaps, Mr. Bailey, but that is because the assumption is that the media themselves will enforce high standards of free expression and debate in the public interest, rather than cutting and running when the heat is turned up.

With this line of thinking, the station would be justified in refusing to air controversial editorial comments on important political issues, because it is the station and not the government making the decision.  That is sad.

4. Finally, the other journalists covering the University of South Carolina are not looking too brave.  Their silence on the issue is disturbing.  The only protests against Spurrier’s words came from national media like Gregg Doyel at CBS Sports.  The onlylocal protest came from Dan Cook of the Free Times, a Columbia weekly.  Nothing yet from the daily sports media.

It seems like Spurrier is getting a free ride from the beat writers covering USC.  They are open to the accusation that they are allowing Spurrier to intimidate and manipulate them.  And, the argument continues, they are letting him get away with it because they know that, as a winning coach, he has the fans’ support regardless of the ethics of his actions.

It is similar to the situation in Alabama (disclaimer: I am an Auburn fan), where the press covering Nick Saban seem reluctant to criticize or even address his treatment of the media.  Before the Western Kentucky game, when Saban went off on the sportswriters for underestimating WKU, the writers mainly joked about it.  The national media again was left to take Saban to task for a truly strange rant.

In both cases, the sports writers know that the fans – their readers – support the coach.  When the coach directly criticizes the media, the fans might respond by canceling subscriptions, or clicking on other websites.  It seems like the sports writers would rather “play ball” with the coach then stand up to him when he crosses the line, as Spurrier did with Morris.  They are intimidated by their readers as much as the coach.

Obviously, the treatment is different for coaches who are not winning.  Can you imagine what would happen if John L. Smith at Arkansas or Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech complained about the media at this point in the season?  The local media would rise up and attack.

Now think about coaches like Mark Richt at the University of Georgia.  He receives his share of criticism and comment, but does he chastise and try to manipulate the media?  He deals with it and moves on.

A colleague brought up another point.  Communities like Columbia, S.C., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., have a more provincial feel to them where coaches like Spurrier and Saban can get away with such treatment of the local media.  But the larger the city, the harder it is to pull that off.

Lane Kiffin knows that he can’t get away with it at USC, try though he did.  Any coach, pro or college, who would try that in New York City, Chicago, Washington, and maybe even Atlanta (considering Richt’s approach) would only make a bad situation worse.

But win or lose, big town or small town, what Steve Spurrier is trying to accomplish with the media in Columbia is wrong.  And I wish that more journalists would have the courage to stand up to him on it.


Remembering Paul Davis


To learn that Paul Davis had passed away certainly caused sadness to many who love journalism and appreciate its rich history in Alabama.  Those of us who knew him were bummed too.

The basics: Paul died Monday after a brief illness. He had been in declining health for some time.  The sad news of Monday brings to an end a newspaper career that will not be replicated – not because of the changing nature of the industry, but because Paul represented a generation of journalists whose fire and advocacy seems a lost flame today.

There are those who knew Paul better than me, and the Alabama Press Association’s obituary has great detail on his career.  But I will do my best to remember the man as I knew him.  Maybe others can fill in the blanks in the comments section.  Here is what I admire most about Paul:

1. At the age of 25, he was there when Gov. Wallace stood in the door of Foster Auditorium, refusing to allow African-American students to enroll at the University of Alabama.  When Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach arrived with the Alabama National Guard, he met privately with Wallace.  Only one journalist would be allowed to report on the meeting, and Paul’s name was drawn.  He even came away with a photo of him with Katzenbach and Wallace.  Not surprisingly, I could not find the photo on the Internet.  (Getting it scanned is definitely on my to-do list.)  But I use him as an example to my students of someone who was not intimidated by the weight of a historic moment.

2. Paul’s crusade in the late 1960s uncovering mistreatment of mentally handicapped kids and mentally ill adults at state hospitals represents the best of journalism – advocating for those unable to speak for themselves.  His work in the Tuscaloosa News was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and though his work was not selected, the rewards of having federal courts intervene on behalf of the patients was far greater.  Eventually, he would be appointed to the state Department of Mental Health Board of Directors.

3. I met Paul in 1977.  He had purchased the Auburn Bulletin from the Neil Davis family, and the Bulletin had been awarded the printing contact for The Auburn Plainsman.  We certainly made life miserable for Paul’s production crew, which included his son Allen, who is now an executive with Media General.  Well, maybe our damage was limited to Wednesday nights. The old print shop is now Bloodhound’s.  I visited the building for the first time in 2003, when it was the Auburn Ale House.  Heavy deja vu walking up and down those stairs.  Thank goodness the ink smell was gone.

4. From then on, these past nine years, Paul enjoyed his “lion in winter” phase.  He continued to publish the Tuskegee News.  After Tallassee News Publisher Jack Venable passed away, his family accepted Paul’s bid to purchase the newspaper, wishing it to be sold to someone who believed in community journalism.  His columns continued, and while his conclusions might have irked many, his reporting was spot-on.

And the honors rolled in.  The Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alabama Press Association.  The first community journalism award from the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council.  The Memorial Service Award from Auburn’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors.  And others.

Appropriately, Paul was a frequent visitor to our Friday morning breakfast group. It had started as a book discussion group by Neil Davis at The Grille.  Before I started attending, apparently a roof tile fell on Paul one morning, sparking conspiracy theories. As his health began to fail, his visits became less frequent, but he was always on our minds, and in our prayers when word came that he was not doing well.

A few weeks ago, I was at Golden Corral with a friend.  Paul and his wife, Gayle, were there with one of his sons, and he insisted that we join them.  He seemed tired – the edge of his wit did not have me backpedaling, as it usually did – but he was enjoying the meal.  I did not know it would be the last time I would interact with Paul.  Now, I feel blessed that it was granted me.

I’m glad to be a faculty member of the journalism program at Auburn.  Maybe we have the next Paul Davis among our current or future students, or maybe even among our alumni.  But for now, I’m grateful for the work and the example of the original.