Alabama blogger Roger Shuler was released from a Shelby County, Ala. jail on March 26, more than five months after he was imprisoned on contempt charges for refusing to comply with a court order to take down allegedly defamatory articles.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued in an October letter that the order was an unconstitutional prior restraint. Shuler had written a series of posts on his blog, Legal Schnauzer, claiming that Robert Riley, Jr., son of former Alabama governor Bob Riley and potential candidate for a soon-to-be-vacant U.S. House of Representatives seat, had an affair with and impregnated lobbyist Liberty Duke.
Shuler was released from jail after his wife, Carol, removed most of the articles about Riley and Duke from the blog, and from You Tube and Twitter accounts, according to Alabama news outlets.
Roger Shuler said that he and his wife took down the material after all this time because he realized that complying with the court was necessary for his own security.
“I saw no other way to get out of jail. After five months in a very difficult environment … I felt my physical well-being was at stake,” Shuler said. “I had hoped to get outside legal representation that could get my release on lawful grounds. But that was very slow in developing, so I just had to make a move for what I considered to be my own survival.”
The New York Times reported in January that Shuler was "unwilling to hire a lawyer" and that he displayed "self-defeating" behavior at times.
Shuler said that he plans to seek legal remedy for the time he spent in jail, and to challenge the constitutionality of the original contempt of court charge.
“I am looking at possible legal remedies," Shuler said. "I'm not sure yet what form those might take, but I think it is essential to explore those options.”
In July 2013, Riley filed a lawsuit against Roger and Carol Shuler, alleging that they had posted false and defamatory stories and seeking to prevent further articles from being published. Duke also filed suit against the Shulers.
The court issued a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction in October 2013, which ordered that previously posted defamatory stories be removed from the blog. It also banned the Shulers from posting further defamatory statements about Riley and Duke.
However, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, in its letter, argued that the process by which the court issued the take-down order was problematic.
"It appears that there was no full adjudication on the merits or default judgment ever issued against the Shulers on the defamation claim," the letter states. "As such, the temporary restraining order and preliminary injunctions amount to unconstitutional prior restraints."
After Legal Schnauzer continued to run articles about Riley and Duke, the two asked the court to hold the Shulers in contempt for violating the orders not to publish. Roger Shuler was arrested on Oct. 23, 2013, and also was also charged with resisting arrest. Carol Shuler was not arrested.
The Committee to Protect Journalists had considered Shuler the only imprisoned journalist in the Western Hemisphere.
Shuler said he did not take down the materials sooner because he did not have adequate information or resources to purge the contempt.
“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 said. "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 also explained that “I also was limited by that fact that Carol and I had no experience dealing with issues related to jail and arrest."
"Neither of us ever had been close to being incarcerated before," he said. "We simply did the best we could with an extremely stressful, unfair situation.”
Shuler has run Legal Schnauzer since 2007. Before that, he worked for the Birmingham Post-Herald for more than a decade and was a university editor for about 20 years.