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My Incarceration in Shelby County, Alabama, Was the Third Longest for a Journalist in American History

Posted on the 26 May 2015 by Rogershuler @RogerShuler

My incarceration in Shelby County, Alabama, was the third longest for a journalist in American history

California journalist Joshua Wolf, who was
incarcerated for 226 days

My incarceration, ordered by retired Alabama Circuit Judge Claud Dent Neilson, was the third longest for a journalist in American history. It was, by far, the longest for a journalist in a purely civil matter. And it was the only one involving an alleged violation of a preliminary injunction that was unlawful on its face--running contrary to more than 200 years of legal precedent.
All of that means Neilson's order sending me to jail likely was the most unlawful First Amendment ruling in U.S. history.
I never set out to make history by being abducted from my own home and thrown in jail. But research shows that is exactly what happened.
The record for longest incarceration of a U.S. journalist belongs to Joshua Wolf, a freelance videographer from San Francisco, who spent 226 days behind bars in 2006-07. Second on the list is Houston freelance writer Vanessa Leggett, who spent 168 days behind bars in 2001-02. No. 3 is yours truly, who spent 155 days in the Shelby County Jail in 2013-14.
While I disagree with the courts' actions in the Wolf and Leggett cases, all indications are that those were lawful under a U.S. Supreme Court holding in Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665 (1972), which allows the jailing of journalists who refuse to turn over information related to criminal matters. Here is how we described the Wolf case in an earlier post:
Joshua Wolf (2006)--A free-lance blogger and videographer in San Francisco, Wolf was jailed for refusing to turn over a videotape of a 2005 protest. Wolf taped clashes between demonstrators and San Francisco police during a June 2005 protest by anarchists against a Group of Eight economic conference. Wolf sold footage of the protest to San Francisco television stations and posted it on his Web site. Investigators wanted Wolf's testimony and portions of his videotape that were not broadcast, as part of a probe into possible criminal activity, including an alleged attempt by protesters to burn a police vehicle. Wolf was in prison from August 2006 to April 2007.

Here is how we described the Leggett case:
Vanessa Leggett (2001)--A free-lance writer in Houston, Texas, Leggett was jailed without bond for refusing to turn over research for a book she was writing about the 1997 murder of Houston socialite Doris Angleton. Leggett was in jail from July 20, 2001, to January 4, 2002.

Wolf and Leggett were held longer than I was, but their incarcerations involved reporting on criminal matters and likely were lawful. Mine involved a purely civil matter--a preliminary injunction in a defamation case, which has been a forbidden prior restraint under First Amendment law for more than 200 years.
We've found two other cases of American journalists being incarcerated related to civil matters. Both involved refusal to turn over information about sources during depositions. New York gossip columnist Marie Torre was ordered jailed for 10 days, in a case involving actress Judy Garland. And Belleville, Illinois, editorial writer Richard Hargraves was jailed for three days, in a case involving critical reports of a county supervisor.
How do the numbers stack up? My incarceration was more than 15 times longer than any other for a U.S. journalist in a civil matter.
My incarceration was widely covered in the press, both Web and mainstream. Every serious account I've seen--including those from writers on the opposite side of the political spectrum from me--have stated it was clearly unlawful. Multiple social-interest organizations, including the ACLU and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed court briefs stating it was unlawful.
But my sense is that the general public still does not fully understand the grotesque nature of what happened in Shelby County, Alabama. The comparable events cited above show it truly was off the charts.
In fact, it appears to be unprecedented in American history.

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