Legal Magazine

I Am One of Only Three Journalists in the Past 115 Years to Be Sent to Jail Related to a Purely Civil Matter

Posted on the 15 April 2015 by Rogershuler @RogerShuler

I am one of only three journalists in the past 115 years to be sent to jail related to a purely civil matter

Actress Judy Garland became
part of a historic defamation
case.

We have shown that I am the only journalist in the 2000s to be incarcerated in a civil matter, a case that had nothing to do with an alleged crime. How many journalists were incarcerated over purely civil cases in the 1900s?
The answer shines disturbing light on events that led to me being thrown in the Shelby County, Alabama, jail from October 23, 2013, to March 26, 2014. It also might cause citizens to ask if Judge Claud Neilson, Birmingham lawyer Rob Riley, and lobbyist Liberty Duke--the three individuals most responsible for my incarceration--should be subject to a federal investigation.
As to our original question, only two journalists were jailed over civil matters in the 20th century--and both cases involved circumstances radically different from those in my case.
How extraordinary were the actions of Riley, Duke, and Neilson? For some perspective, I'm only the third journalist to be jailed in a civil matter in 115 years--since the days of the William McKinley presidency.
Actually, my incarceration was even more extraordinary than the previous paragraph suggests, but we will save details about that for an upcoming post.
For now, we know that a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court case styled Branzburg v. Hayes allows for the imprisonment of journalists who refuse to turn over information related to a criminal case. According to a list compiled in April 2013 by Fox News, that has happened at least 28 times since 1900, five times in the 2000s.
What about the two civil cases where journalists were sent to jail in the 1900s? One of them involved an actress who played the lead role in one of the most beloved movies of all time. The other involved alleged political chicanery in a small Illinois town. Let's take a look:
* Garland v. Torre (1958)--Judy Garland, best known for her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, sued New York Herald Tribune writer Marie Torre, claiming quotes in a Torre column from an unnamed CBS executive defamed her. Torre reported that Garland was balking at a planned CBS special because, according to a network source, Garland thought she was "terribly fat" at the time. Garland claimed the statement was false and defamatory and harmed her professional reputation. Garland's lawyers took Torre's deposition, but she repeatedly refused to reveal the identity of her source. A federal judge sentenced Torre to 10 days in jail for contempt of court. This was the first case where a plaintiff faced a formal First Amendment challenge to a demand for information about sources.
* Costello v. Capital Cities Communications, et al (1984)--Richard Hargraves, an editorial writer for the Belleville (IL) News-Democrat, wrote an unflattering piece about Jerry Costello, chairman of the county board of supervisors. Hargraves wrote that Costello had lied regarding a campaign promise to oppose new taxes, and Costello sued for libel. During a deposition, Hargraves refused to name anyone in county government to whom he had spoken before writing the editorial, and a judge ordered him jailed for three days.
How do Garland and Costello differ from my case? Perhaps the biggest difference is that the plaintiffs in these cases did not seek unlawful preliminary injunctions. Also, the plaintiffs clearly sought trials because parties were subjected to depositions and cross-examination as part of trial preparation. There was nothing even resembling a trial in my case. Neilson conducted one hearing, to which I was escorted from the Shelby County Jail in shackles and chains, and that was it.
Lawyers for Garland and Costello apparently knew that the law does not allow for a preliminary injunction in a defamation case. Rob Riley and Liberty Duke apparently didn't know it or chose to ignore it. I lost five months of my freedom because of that.

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