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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Gulag Justice? Alabama Blogger Jailed in Secretive Scandal

By David J. Krajicek on Nov 11, 2013

Roger Shuler’s mug shot
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama–In a case troubling to free speech advocates, an Alabama journalist who blogged about allegations of a sordid affair between a powerful Republican scion and a lobbyist has been arrested and now sits in jail on contempt charges.

A judge has taken the extraordinary steps of not only sealing the file in the case, but ordering that the blogger’s posts be removed from the Internet.

Roger Shuler, 56, was arrested Oct. 23 on a warrant by deputies who were waiting when he returned to his Birmingham home from a trip to the local library.

His wife, Carol Shuler, told WhoWhatWhy that he was beaten and Maced by deputies who cornered him in his garage. His booking photo from the Shelby County Jail shows his left eye swollen shut.

For three weeks, he has sat behind bars in the county lockup in Columbiana, Alabama, held without bail on two counts of contempt of court and the add-on charge of resisting arrest.

Prior to his arrest, Shuler blogged that he was attempting to evade being served papers and forced into court. He claimed the attempts were illegal and therefore invalid on jurisdictional and technical legal grounds.

Randall Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, which is involved in the case, acknowledged that Shuler “didn’t do himself any favors.”

Still, the ACLU and others argue that Shuler’s jailing raises fundamental constitutional questions about prior restraint, secretive court proceedings and the covert power of legal and political cronyism in this Deep South state.

“This issue is important to journalists because they should not have to face jail over something they wrote,” Gregg P. Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told WhoWhatWhy. “This goes beyond traditional reporters and bloggers — no one should be held in contempt of court and jailed for not taking something off of an Internet site, at least and until they have a chance to defend it in court and there’s a final court order finding it libelous. 

Even then, the punishment under libel laws is a monetary award to the injured party, not a coercive demand to stop speaking.”

Blog Alleges Affair, Abortion

The case is rooted in Shuler’s allegations of an affair in about 2006 between a scion of one of Alabama’s elite political families, Robert Riley, Jr., and Liberty Duke, a registered lobbyist in Alabama. Riley is a Birmingham lawyer and son of Bob Riley, a nationally prominent Republican who served as governor of Alabama from 2002 to 2010.
Former governor of Alabama, Bob Riley

Shuler reported on his “Legal Schnauzer” blog that Duke got pregnant, and “Republican insiders” paid her as much as $300,000 to have an abortion and to “stay quiet on the subject.” Both Riley and Duke were married with children at the time of the alleged affair, though Duke was soon sued for divorce by her husband.
Liberty Duke

In late July, a few weeks after Shuler reported those details, Riley and Duke filed a defamation lawsuit against the journalist. Both have denied having a sexual relationship.
Robert Riley, Jr.

Judge Claud Neilson of Demopolis, Alabama, came out of retirement to preside over the case. He was appointed to the task by Roy Moore, the controversial state Supreme Court chief justice and a key player in GOP strategist Karl Rove’s Republican makeover of the Yellowhammer State’s high court.
Karl Rove

In addition to the First Amendment ramifications, the case has implications beyond state borders. For two decades now, Alabama has been regarded as a kind of Shangri-La by the national Republican Party; it was the petri dish where Rove demonstrated that stealth micro-politics — the appointment of a particular partisan judge or prosecutor, for example – can pave the way to achieving broader political goals.

Shuler’s wife said Riley used his political connections to get special consideration from Judge Neilson. For example, the judge has sealed all records of the case and ordered Shuler to scrub the Internet of his stories about the affair—moves that the ACLU’s Marshall said are unprecedented.

The case does not appear under the normal search parameters—the names of plaintiffs and defendants–in the Alabama state court online database. When searched by its secret docket number, a blunt message appears: “This case is confidential.”

Neilson’s order runs counter to fundamental precepts of prior restraint from First Amendment case law, experts said. The case has attracted little attention in the major media—though it should, advocates say. Finish reading>>