Alabama-based blogger Roger Shuler was finally released conditionally on 26 March after five months in detention on a contempt of court charge for refusing to rid his blog, Legal Schnauzer, of allegedly defamatory posts about the son of a former Alabama governor.
Shuler asked his wife, Carol Shuler, to remove the articles because he could not bear the prison conditions any longer. His release will not be definitive until the court decides that all the defamatory material has been removed.
“Shuler complied with the judge’s demands out of concern for his well-being,” said Camille Soulier, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk. “The court order nonetheless still constitutes prior censorship. It is unacceptable that this blogger has had to renounce his freedom to inform for the sake of his physical freedom.”
“Regarded as unconstitutional by specialists such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, this court order is yet another aberration in the land of the First Amendment. We call for this publication ban to be lifted and for Shuler to be freed unconditionally.”
14.11.2013: Blogger held after ignoring prior censorship order in libel case
Reporters Without Borders condemns Alabama-based journalist and blogger Roger Shuler’s detention for the past three weeks without any possibility of contesting the charges of contempt of court and resisting arrest brought against him.
Shuler was roughed up by police during arrest outside his home on 23 October after ignoring a restraining order that constituted prior censorship because it banned him from publishing any further stories about an alleged affair between Robert Riley Jr, a lawyer linked to the Republican Party, and lobbyist Liberty Duke.
He was initially due to appear before a judge on 7 November but the hearing was postponed and is now due to be held today.
“As Shuler was not served with any official order or warrant at the time of arrest, we call for his immediate release and the withdrawal of all the charges against him.” Reporters Without Borders said.
“While not disputing the right to bring a defamation action, we point out that the Supreme Court has ruled that pre-publication restraining orders are tantamount to censorship and therefore unconstitutional. Shuler cannot be guilty of contempt of court because the preliminary injunction issued by a judge was illegal.”
A former reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper, Shuler now writes an investigative blog called Legal Schnauzer that specializes in covering alleged corruption involving Alabama officials. He has been the target of intimidation in the past, above all in the form of anonymous comments responding to his posts.
Shuler posted his first story about an alleged extramarital affair between Riley and Duke on 2 July. He claimed that Riley, the son of a former Republican Party governor, had paid Duke to have an abortion despite officially opposing abortion.
Both Riley and Duke filed lawsuits against Shuler and his wife, Carol Shuler, who assists with the blog, alleging that his claims were defamatory.
According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, at the initial hearing, the judge not only placed a restraining order on Shuler but also placed all filings related to the case under seal, ending any transparency as regards the proceedings.
Shuler posted some of these filings on his blog and continued to post stories about Riley and Duke. According to Carol Shuler, no court order was shown by the four sheriffs who arrested her husband illegally, beating him and using pepper spray on him.
“I am devastated,” Shuler told Reporters Without Borders. “So far we don’t have a lawyer and we cannot afford to pay for the lawyer specialized in constitutional law that we would need to win this case.”
Freedom of information is nowadays subject to major obstacles in the land of the First Amendment. This is also the case at the federal level, both for journalists and whistleblowers. Shuler is not the only journalist currently in detention in the United States.