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.