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Journalist Found Himself With Hands Tied During Five-Month Incarceration In Defamation Case

Posted on the 08 April 2014 by Rogershuler @RogerShuler
Journalist Found Himself With Hands Tied During Five-Month Incarceration In Defamation CaseI was largely cut off from communication with the outside world, with little opportunity to defend myself, during a five-month incarceration over a defamation lawsuit. Those are among the key points in a new article from Think Progress reporter Nicole Flatow.
The article describes the no-win situation I encountered: I was faced with removing articles in an order that represented a clear prior restraint, conflicting with more than 200 years of First Amendment law; but if I was going to comply with the court order, I had no way of doing it. From the Think Progress piece:
Shuler was initially resistant to the order. But even when he wanted to comply, he didn’t know how.
“At my Nov. 14 hearing, the only hearing I had in the case, the court gave me no direction on how I could purge myself of contempt,” Shuler told the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “I noted that I had no computer or Web access to take down the posts, even though I knew it was unlawful to be forced into taking them down. The court’s response was more or less that I had to resolve that problem myself. With that kind of response from the court I felt caught between the proverbial ‘rock and a hard place.’”
Shuler said if he was lucky, he got to make a 15-minute call three or four times a week. “That’s the only communication I had with anybody,” said.

Getting legal assistance also was difficult. Writes Flatow:
And getting a lawyer wasn’t easy. While defendants in criminal cases who cannot afford a lawyer have a right to court-appointed counsel, the same is not true in civil contempt cases. Shuler called himself middle class, and said he would “really need either pro bono or contingency type of legal representation and I think it’s a possibility but it’s very slow in trying to make it happen.”
Shuler was supported by legal briefs in his case from the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. But neither organization was representing him directly, and only he had the power to appeal his own case. Shuler didn’t appeal. He said he spent his time in jail fearing for his life, and figuring out how he could comply with a sweeping contempt order and get out of jail. As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press explained in an October letter, the order included a vague mandate to take down all content related to the alleged affair, without ever deeming which content was actually defamatory.

I did wind up with an education about the nature of our "correctional" system, which doesn't seem to address many of the problems that put inmates behind  bars:
Shuler was perhaps the most prominent inmate in Shelby County jail these last few months, but he says he wasn’t the only one who shouldn’t have been there. Most of the people he met were there for drug and alcohol problems, he said, or for mental health issues the jail didn’t appear suited to handle.
“Jail is I guess by definition a holding facility for people a lot of whom have not yet been found guilty of anything,” he said. (Jails typically hold individuals who have been charged but not yet convicted, or those who receive short sentences, typically less than a year). “I go to bed at night and a lot of times I think there are guys still in there … I get the feeling we’re in a culture right now, it’s sort of like arrest first, and ask questions later.”

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